In November, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov were chewing up minutes in Pac-Man fashion on the Buffalo Sabres’ defense. Neither are doing so anymore. It’s something that bears watching over the final 23 games of this train wreck of a season.
The master plan, of course, calls for the two kids to be studs for years on the team’s back end. And there have been plenty of times this year you could see why. They’re both big. They can skate. They play with snarl.
Ristolainen is clearly the guy who engenders the most confidence from Ted Nolan, which doesn’t matter since he’s not likely to have him as coach next season. But the impression is pretty clear that he’s the front office’s choice as well.
Still, while Zadorov was a healthy scratch for the sixth time since the new year during Friday’s mostly dreary loss to the New York Rangers, Ristolainen was on pace for as little of the ice as he’s seen in 2015 as well.
The 20-year-old played just three minutes in the first period, getting burned on Carl Hagelin’s breakaway goal that got the Rangers even. His ice time jumped up the rest of the way out of necessity after Mike Weber was injured and didn’t return for the final 40 minutes. Ristolainen finished at 17:55.
Ristolainen has played over 20 minutes in 22 games this season, and he eclipsed 24 minutes eight times. But in the last 13 games, he’s hit 20 minutes just twice. Some of it is because he’s hitting that wall young players hit. Some of it is because the Sabres are pulling back on his ice time.
“I like playing more minutes, but I know there was a tough couple weeks or so where I didn’t play too well,” Ristolainen said. “Hopefully I’ll play better and try to get as many minutes back as they give me.”
Zadorov has three goals, 10 assists and a minus-12 rating. Ristolainen has four goals, seven assists and an ugly minus-27 rating. Now, especially since the Sabres pretty much don’t score at all, it’s hard to really classify plus-minus numbers.
Still, the kid is 822nd in the league out of 826 players and second from the bottom of all defensemen. You would expect him to be better than that.
(Ugly asides: The only defenseman in the NHL worse than Ristolainen is Sabres veteran Josh Gorges, who’s likely to be done for the season and sitting on his minus-28. The worst plus-minus in the league? Buffalo forward Chris Stewart at minus-30).
“I’m not proud of it and I know it’s not good,” Ristolainen said. “But it is what it is. I don’t look at it.”
Opposing teams have started to attack Ristolainen more than earlier in the season. And the Sabres simply create no offensive attack, so that puts undue pressure on whichever pair is playing defense. As Tyler Myers said when he got to Winnipeg, playing defense in Buffalo creates some tough minutes all the time.
“I have to be better in the defensive zone and then I can do more and help my teammates on offense,” Ristolainen said. “I think I can score.”
Nolan said before Friday’s game he wants Ristolainen and Zadorov to be unhappy their ice time has been cut. It’s easier to have them mad at the coach, he theorized, than to have them overmatched night after night.
“Hope is a good thing once in a while, but you’ve got to make sure you put the kids in a position of success versus failure,” Nolan said. “Hopefully you make the right decisions.”
Newcomer Zach Bogosian is getting Myers’ minutes and then some since the big trade with Winnipeg. Weber had been pretty good for the last month until getting hurt Friday, and Andre Benoit had been playing his best hockey of the season alongside Bogosian until regressing in this game as well.
Ristolainen has been a mainstay since day one of the season, while Zadorov’s season has been full of dramatics.
Zadorov, remember, was scratched during the rookie tournament in Traverse City, Mich. He showed up to training camp overweight and didn’t play until November. And that little travel faux pas returning from the Dominican Republic after the All-Star break certainly didn’t help either.
From his days in junior hockey, Nolan knows the trouble that can develop from overfeeding a 16- or 17-year-old to opponents who are 19 and 20. The Sabres did a little too much of that earlier in the year with Ristolainen and Zadorov. Some games, it worked fine. Sometimes, it was a problem.
They seemed to play better as a pair and struggled more when apart. So the recipe the rest of the way should be this: It would be nice to see Ristolainen and Zadorov back as an every night pair. They should get 17-20 minutes a game. They need the work. They should be trying to be better in March than they were in January and February.
The Sabres are rolling out Evander Kane for his introductory press conference Saturday. They’re well on the way to getting Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel in June. They’re ostensibly going to be trying to win come September. Right? RIGHT? They need their pair of No. 1 picks from 2013 ready to cut way back on the growing pains.
“I don’t look at it that I’m ahead or behind of what people think,” Ristolainen said. “I’m just trying to play better. There are some up and downs. I want to get to the level that I can be pretty good every night.”