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With contract out of way, Ristolainen's focus is returning Sabres to playoffs

Rasmus Ristolainen’s mind is at ease. He’s staying in Buffalo for the next six years. He’s going to be paid like a top defenseman with a salary of $5.4 million per season.

With the contract out of the way, the next goal is clear.

“I expect some playoff hockey in Buffalo,” Ristolainen said Tuesday. “We have a great team, some good additions in the summertime. It’s going to be an exciting year.”

The Sabres and their No. 1 defenseman agreed on a new deal two days before the start of the 2016-17 season, clearing the way for him to skate Thursday when Montreal visits KeyBank Center. The sides remained confident they’d reach an agreement despite the tight deadline.

“Rasmus has already proven to be a pivotal player on our blue line, and we are eager to have him back with the team,” Sabres General Manager Tim Murray said. “This deal is a reflection of the hard work and improvement Rasmus has shown since being drafted, and we hope to see him continue on this trajectory moving forward.”

Ristolainen, whose salary remains a constant $5.4 million every year through 2021-22, vaulted to third on the Sabres behind forwards Ryan O’Reilly ($7.5 million) and Kyle Okposo ($6 million). The restricted free agent was looking to fall in line with his peers, and the deal does that.

Ristolainen’s cap hit is tied for 33rd among defensemen. The contract mirrors the six-year, $32.4 million deal signed by Columbus’ Seth Jones. Ristolainen will make more than recent signees Torey Krug of Boston ($5.25 million), Morgan Rielly of Toronto ($5 million) and Sami Vatanen of Anaheim ($4.875 million). He’ll make less than former Buffalo defensemen Tyler Myers and Andrej Sekera, who are earning $5.5 million with Winnipeg and Edmonton, respectively.

“I don’t have to think about the upstairs stuff,” Ristolainen said. “Now it’s only hockey. It’s nice.”

The 21-year-old has evolved into a point-producing, minute-hogging defenseman since being drafted eighth overall in 2013. Ristolainen finished 24th among blue-liners last season with 41 points, including 32 assists. His average ice time of 25:16 ranked 10th among all skaters.

He would have been sorely missed.

“He’s a guy who was our No. 1 guy in all situations last year,” defenseman Josh Gorges said. “You don’t say, ‘OK, Josh, you go step in and do what Risto did.’ It just doesn’t work that way. You don’t replace what he brings: a physical guy who can run the power play, get big minutes against the top players.”

Ristolainen is grateful he’s had the opportunity to practice with the Sabres during negotiations. He’s kept up on systems and game plans. More importantly, he’s been part of the camaraderie.

“When I came in, guys were working hard and competing hard,” Ristolainen said. “Everyone realizes that this is the year that we are ready to take the next step.”

The defenseman feels his appearance for Finland in the World Cup of Hockey helped him ready for his role in Buffalo. Though the Finns disappointed by losing all three games, Ristolainen skated 23:02 per outing.

“It was a good challenge to have it before the season,” he said. “It was tough, tough games against the world’s best players. I feel very good that we had it, and I’m in great shape.”

He’s also in a great state of mind with negotiations complete and the season starting.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun to have a normal skate with the guys,” Ristolainen said. “I’m excited to have the contract over and turn my mindset 100 percent to the home opener Thursday.”

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