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With World Cup looming, Ristolainen not worried about Sabres contract situation

TORONTO -- The calendar keeps rolling on and Rasmus Ristolainen remains without a contract with the Buffalo Sabres. Now we're into September, heading into the opening weekend of the World Cup of Hockey and Ristolainen is focusing on being the defensive stalwart for Team Finland.

But the lingering situation with the Sabres isn't proving to be too much of a distraction.

"It doesn't bother me at all. I don't worry about it," Ristolainen told The Buffalo News Thursday at Air Canada Centre. "I'm 100 percent here for Team Finland. Then let's see what happens with Buffalo after the tournament. I've never been in this situation before so I really don't know how long it takes or how the contract things work."

Ristolainen is one of a handful of prominent players without a deal but still playing in the tournament. Like Team North America forward Johnny Gaudreau and defenseman Jacob Trouba, they're playing with insurance from the NHL and NHLPA. Ristolainen and agent Mike Liut, the former NHL goalie, are expected to be looking for a deal of 5-6 years. Ristolainen wrapped up his entry-level deal last season at the maximum cap hit of $925,000 and could be looking at a payday of $5-$6 million per season.

"It doesn't bother me, but on the other hand I'm not happy it's this long too," Ristolainen admitted. "I still trust that we will make that contract happen. I like Buffalo. I want to be there as long as I can and I feel they feel the same way about me. I trust it's going to be taken care of."

Sabres center Ryan O'Reilly, just added to Team Canada on Wednesday as an injury replacement, knows all about contract squabbles. He was traded from Colorado to Buffalo 15 months ago largely because he could not come to terms on a deal with the Avalanche. After the deal to the Sabres, O'Reilly signed a seven-year, $52.5-million contract with Buffalo that's the largest in franchise history.

"It can be a tough deal," O'Reilly said of contract limbo. "He's a young guy here to enjoy this tournament and he's a huge piece for our puzzle in Buffalo. You have to believe it will work out. I would say to him he has people doing that work for him and he should just focus on playing hockey right now."

Ristolainen has played a lot of hockey in this tournament already. In the three exhibition games, he logged ice times of 26 minutes, 29 seconds, 21:51 and 24:58. He had one goal, two assists and a minus-2 rating as Finland went 1-2.

"It's actually felt pretty easy in these exhibition games to play those minutes," said Ristolainen, whose club opens the tournament here at 8 Sunday night against Team North America and Buffalo teammate Jack Eichel. "I've worked hard all summer. I feel like I'm in great shape and I can handle those minutes for sure."

Team Russia defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, acquired from Florida for Mark Pysyk, is Ristolainen's likely partner on Buffalo's top defense pair.

"I'm used to playing 25 minutes too. I've had that role in Florida playing against top lines," Kulikov said here Thursday. "If we have good chemistry from the beginning, it's going to be a fun year for both of us."

Ristolainen understands the Sabres will watch his ice time closely this season not let it creep into the 26-28 minutes a game range, as coach Dan Bylsma said during the summer. But he's ready for the call once his contract situation is taken care of because he said the World Cup will allow him to seamlessly move right into the season.

"It's so good for us to play here," Ristolainen said. "You get right into game shape and you're right there. It's very good for everyone."

"This is the first time I'm playing with Rasmus and I'm really impressed," said Finland goalie Pekka Rinne of Nashville. "He's growing all the time and you can see how he plays with so much confidence on the ice. It's almost like a change of generations in Team Finland after all the veterans like Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu, Kimmo Timonen and Teppo Numminen retired. We have a lot of young guys stepping in and that's great to see. I'm really excited for Rasmus. He's a key guy for us."

Boston's Tuukka Rask, Finland's other key man in net, sees plenty of Ristolainen in the Atlantic Division and shared Rinne's thoughts.

"He's a great young D-man and he's become one of the leaders of the defensive corps even though he's a young guy," Rask said. "He's ready to take that next step internationally and in the NHL so it's great to see. Those young guys in Finland are used to winning. It's good to see them come to the World Cup and being confident with themselves."

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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