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Losing takes toll on Sabres' Rasmus Ristolainen

Rasmus Ristolainen has played 346 games with the Buffalo Sabres. He's lost 227.

When the Sabres say some players only know losing, Ristolainen is Exhibit A.

"It's just really tough to lose all the time," the defenseman said. "Everyone wants to make playoffs so bad, and we weren't close. It's hard when at Christmas you're done kind of, and then you still have 40 games to play. It's really tough."

Ristolainen has been in the NHL for five years, and the Sabres still aren't sure what they've got. They use him like a No. 1 defenseman. His stats befit a No. 2 or even a second-pair guy.

Playing for losing teams has skewed his numbers, outlook and attitude.

"There needs to be changes, obviously," Ristolainen said. "It hasn't worked out here, and I hope whatever changes they are, they need to be made."

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The 23-year-old says he will change. Despite being one of the longest-tenured players, Ristolainen hardly comes to mind in terms of leaders. He rarely talks or takes charge on the ice.

"I feel like I can be more vocal," he said. "I feel like I work hard every day on and off the ice, but I can be a better leader vocally. I have had some great leaders so far on the teams I've been on here and back home, and I want to learn from all those guys and be one of them."

The Finnish import increased his physicality this season, though it was normally against players who couldn't match his 6-foot-4, 218-pound frame. His offensive production was similar to last season. He had six goals and 35 assists in 73 games after six goals and 39 assists in 79 games last year.

But he went back to digging pucks out of his net. He was minus-25 after being minus-9 in 2016-17. His first three seasons were minus-15, minus-32 and minus-21.

It seems the defenseman is always on the defensive. Ristolainen's career Corsi (five-on-five shot attempts) is minus-1,520. That's far and away the worst number in the NHL since Ristolainen debuted in 2013. The second-worst total is minus-1,181 for Edmonton's Kris Russell.

Like the steady losses, that shot onslaught takes a toll.

"You've got to trust yourself, your team," Ristolainen said. "You've got to have that confidence, and I'm not sure if we have it here right now, the confidence to know that we will win if we play our system."

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There's little reason for Ristolainen to feel confident about winning. The Sabres were 7-24-3 with him in the lineup during his rookie year. The following seasons were 22-48-8, 35-36-11, 31-36-12 and 24-39-10.

That adds up to 119-183-44. It's 119-227 when counting any loss as a loss.

"Young guys that are starting to be young vets and know this league, that's all they know," defenseman Josh Gorges said of losing. "That's all they know. Whether you can say they're accepting it or allowing it to be the case, they don't know the other side of it.

"As soon as this team gets on a roll and starts winning games, they're going to see the other side of it and how great it is to be on the top and winning games consistently. It's a different feel. When they understand that and get that feel, I don't think they'll let it go."

Ristolainen says he wants that feeling.

"Every single guy needs to change," he said. "This year was really tough for me – I think one of the toughest ones so far because you expect a lot and we were not there where we need to be. From top to bottom, everyone needs to change."

Ristolainen knows that includes himself.

"Rasmus is a really fierce competitor," Sabres coach Phil Housley said. "He plays a really gritty game with good puck skills and good decisions. I think he's a guy that you can rely on. He's dependable. I think he's got a lot of pride in his game.

"Obviously, he doesn't like where we are right now. He wants to be a solution to the problem. Moving forward, he has to be a big part of that."

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