Rasmus Ristolainen knows what it’s like to star on the international stage.
The Buffalo Sabres’ defenseman scored the game-winning goal for Finland in overtime of the 2014 gold-medal game against Sweden at the World Juniors.
He’ll get another chance at heroics with his home county in September, when he suits up in the World Cup. Ristolainen was one of 16 players named to the Finnish club Wednesday, as participating teams made initial roster announcements.
“It’s always a pleasure,” Ristolainen said of playing for his native land. “It’s a huge tournament, all the best players there, so it’s going to be exciting.”
Ristolainen said he had an inkling he was going to be named to the team, but that didn’t make the official announcement any less special.
“It’s huge,” he said. “It’s always nice. A big tournament like this, we have a good team as always. We try to win the tournament every time, that’s for sure.”
The World Cup will be held in Toronto in September and feature eight teams. The timing of the tournament – before the regular season – is a change from the Olympics, for example, which take place during the year.
“I hope it’s good timing,” Ristolainen said. “I can’t say yet, it’s the first time. I haven’t done it, so let’s see. But I think it’s good. Then the camp is after the tournament, so you’re already in very good shape, so it’s kind of good.”
Ristolainen, 21, has blossomed in his second full season with the Sabres, becoming Buffalo’s workhorse on the blue line. He’s averaging a team-best 25:20 of ice time per game and is third on the team with 35 points.
“It’s deserved,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. I’m “real happy for him. He’s a young player, but coming into his own this year. He’s stepped from being a younger player into a full-time, legitimate NHL player, and I think it shows in his selection.”
Ristolainen, however, wasn’t exactly ready to throw a party Wednesday. He’s been unhappy with his play recently, having failed to score a goal in the last 22 games, dating back to Jan. 12. He’s compiled a minus-6 rating in Buffalo’s last five games.
“It’s not where it should be,” he said of the current state of his game. “The start of the year was good. Of course everyone wants to be better and better and play better all the time. That didn’t happen. I’m not playing the level right now I want to play. We have 18 games so I want to have a good end to the year.”
Ristolainen ruled out fatigue as a reason for his recent struggles.
“It’s hard to know exactly the reason,” he said. “If I would, I probably would change it already. It’s just try to play simple, start simple, and then hopefully get it going again.”
Bylsma believes that Ristolainen has tried to do too much over the past dozen or so games.
“We’ve really pushed Rasmus and his game to get better and to keep getting better,” he said. “I think in the last little bit tried to do a little bit too much with his offense, a little bit too much with the puck and run into some problems in his game. … Maybe less is more from him right now in his game and what he’s trying to accomplish.”
Ristolainen is a pending restricted free agent, meaning Sabres General Manager Tim Murray has a decision to make. Does he offer a bridge deal, or try and hammer out a long-term extension?
“I haven’t talked or thought anything about it,” Ristolainen said of his contract status. “I really can’t do anything. I just try to play as good as I can, and then let’s see what happens.”
Ristolainen cracked a slight smile when asked if he was aware of the contract recently signed by Pittsburgh’s Olli Maatta, a fellow 21-year-old defenseman named Wednesday to Team Finland.
Maatta received a six-year, $24.4 million extension with the Penguins last week.
“I didn’t really think much,” Ristolainen said. “Good for him. Nice contract, obviously.”