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Sabres' Ristolainen on demotion: 'I've got to get better'

When the Sabres dumped the puck into their zone to start the morning skate, the top two defensemen went back for the retrieval.

Rasmus Ristolainen wasn't one of them.

The Buffalo blue-liner practiced on the second pairing with Nathan Beaulieu, and that's where he'll start Thursday's game against the New York Islanders.

"He understands he hasn't played well since the All-Star break," coach Phil Housley said in KeyBank Center. "He puts enough pressure on himself. I have no problem with the way he's been competing down low and battling. I think just the execution on passes and getting shots to the net has to be better."

The demotion comes after Ristolainen was minus-2 and gave the puck away with an errant pass Tuesday, allowing Anaheim to gain control in overtime and score for a 4-3 victory.

The 23-year-old knows his game has slipped.

"The whole last week it wasn't there where it needs to be, and I've got to get better," Ristolainen said after the morning skate.

Ristolainen leads Sabres defensemen with three goals, 19 assists and 22 points, but his on-pace numbers (5-32-37) are off last year's totals of six goals, 39 assists and 45 points. He's minus-11 after being on the ice for 31 goals against and 20 goals for at five-on-five.

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The drop in offensive numbers comes as Ristolainen is getting more chances to create. He is starting in the offensive zone 49.3 percent of the time after just a 44.8 percent start rate last year.

As always, the big number in regard to Ristolainen is his minutes. He's third in the NHL with an average ice time of 26:27 per game, behind only Los Angeles' Drew Doughty (27:04) and Minnesota's Ryan Suter (26:44).

Are there times Ristolainen feels he plays too much?

"Nope," he said.

Does he feel he's better in limited minutes?

"It depends on the game," he said. "Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It just depends how I feel every night. A lot of minutes, sometimes I think I play better. Sometimes, not better, so it depends how I feel."

All of Ristolainen's head coaches have talked of decreasing his minutes, but injuries usually prevent that. Buffalo is without Zach Bogosian and Jake McCabe, so it'll be tough to do.

Eventually, Housley wants Ristolainen on the ice less. He thinks it'll help the defenseman, who will watch Casey Nelson join Marco Scandella on the top pair.

"He's going to get above 25 minutes depending on what type of game it is," Housley said, "but I feel if we can keep him around 24, around 25, I think that's where he's at his best.

"Anybody that plays more than that, when you build that through the first period and he's been out there a lot, it just seems like his process is slow, his passes are slow, he's slow to react, so we're going to try to keep him at a good number.

"'But obviously with where we are and the players we're missing on defense, it's hard. But we're going to try to spread those guys around."

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