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Ristolainen’s play on blue line will boost his bottom line

David Legwand emerged from one of the hallways in the Sabres’ dressing room and shouted to Rasmus Ristolainen.

“Risto!” Legwand said Sunday. “I can’t believe you signed, eh? Congrats.”

Ristolainen, caught off-guard by the sudden attention, stopped in midsentence to reply.

“Fifteen years,” he said with a smile.

Considering 15-year contracts are outlawed in the NHL, it was clear Ristolainen was playfully lying to his teammate. But the truth is Ristolainen does have a long-term deal in his future, maybe even for the maximum of eight years.

“We’ll see,” the defenseman said with yet another grin.

As Buffalo began its offseason Sunday, the organization’s top priority differed from previous years. The Sabres aren’t in line to draft a potential superstar. Though a talent upgrade is necessary, they aren’t in the market for wholesale changes.

What the Sabres have to do is keep their No. 1 defenseman.

Ristolainen, who has grown exponentially during his first three NHL seasons, is scheduled to be a restricted free agent this summer. Take it to the bank he won’t reach that status – and say hello to the 21-year-old as he’s making a big deposit with the teller.

“Here’s a young player with the ability to do everything,” defense partner Josh Gorges said. “There’s very few players in the league that can do everything at a high level. You’re a guy that plays against the other team’s top lines. He’s first-unit power play, first-unit penalty kill, in at the end of games whether you’re up or down a goal.

“To see a guy that age be able to handle all that and thrive with it, he’s just going to get better. He’s the type of guy that he’s not going to just sit on his success and be content with it. He wants more. He wants more out of himself. He wants more from his team.

“The sky’s the limit for what he can accomplish.”

Ristolainen ranked in the top 30 among NHL blue-liners in goals (nine), assists (32) and points (41). He was 13th in the power-play points (21), ninth in shots (202) and 10th in average ice time (25:16). While only two defensemen had a worse plus/minus rating than his minus-21, that number dips to minus-14 when empty-net goals are eliminated.

He’s become the point-producing, minute-hogging defenseman that scouts forecast when Buffalo drafted him eighth overall in 2013.

“It didn’t really surprise me,” Ristolainen said in First Niagara Center. “That was my goal before I came here this year. I still want to be a lot better player, and I think I can be a lot better player.”

The 6-foot-4, 207-pounder added physicality to his game this season, and it stood out because of the players he battled. He repeatedly went shove for shove with Alex Ovechkin. He banged shoulders with Milan Lucic. He had Sidney Crosby angrily retaliating with cross-checks.

“I like to battle,” Ristolainen said. “I played against the best players, the top lines and you’ve got to make it hard for them. It’s a good challenge. You have to be ready every night. If you have a little mistake, they pretty much put the puck in the back of our net.

“If you play well, if you shut them down, it gives you a lot of confidence.”

Ristolainen was the only Buffalo player to appear in all 82 games. He admits they weren’t all good. He started and finished well but was inconsistent in the middle.

“I was struggling a little bit, maybe too much ups and downs, but the last 10-15 games were a little better,” he said. “There was some improvement, but personally I’m still a little disappointed. I want to play playoff hockey, and we didn’t do it this year.”

The question for the Sabres is how much is Ristolainen’s improvement worth. Fellow 21-year-old Finn Olli Maatta signed a six-year extension in February worth just more than $4 million per season. Other comparables are much higher:

• Calgary’s Dougie Hamilton signed a six-year deal worth $5.75 million per season at age 22.

• Arizona’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson signed for six years at $5.5 million at 22.

• Buffalo gave 22-year-old Tyler Myers a seven-year extension worth $5.5 million per season.

“I don’t have a contract right now, and let’s see how things go the next couple days,” Ristolainen said. “Let’s see what happens.”

What both the Sabres and Ristolainen hope happens is a long-term relationship that includes continued improvement.

“We played pretty well, and it was a good step forward for a playoff team,” Ristolainen said. “Everyone has to learn how to win. We have a lot of young guys here and a lot of guys who haven’t won anything yet. We had to learn to win, and I think still we have to learn to win.

“Hopefully, next we get more wins and we make the playoffs.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com

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