BOSTON – Rasmus Ristolainen has taken the Sabres’ best-laid plans and skated them into the ground.
Buffalo coach Dan Bylsma was all set to trim Ristolainen’s minutes. The defenseman ranked 10th in the NHL last year at 25:16 per game, and the team thought the workload lessened his game at times.
So as the Sabres headed into Boston on Monday night, where did Ristolainen rank? He was 10th again at 25:19, three seconds more than last year.
The difference is it’s been a steadier 25 minutes for Ristolainen. Last year, he topped 27 minutes 22 times, including a season-high 29:10. This year, he hasn’t gone above 26:43.
“Twenty-five’s good,” Bylsma said in TD Garden. “He was 28 and close to 30 there for a while last year, and I think we’d like him to end up at the 25-mark a night for us.
“He plays in every situation, playing big minutes for us, playing other teams’ top lines. We want him to be out there in those situations, so he’s going to get those 25 minutes. Hopefully, we can keep it to 25.”
Ristolainen leads the Sabres in two of three ice-time categories heading into the game against the Bruins. He's averaging 3:15 on the power play and 2:47 short-handed. His average of 19:16 at even strength is second to Dmitry Kulikov’s 19:26.
“I love the feeling when coach throws you out there all the time,” Ristolainen said. “You’re in the game and your legs are going. As many minutes as I can get, I feel better and better and more comfortable. I’m trying to earn as much ice time as I can get.”
He’s earned it on the offensive end by recording eight assists, tops on the Sabres and tied for 13th in the NHL. Six of the assists have come on the power play. Like all of Buffalo’s defensemen, he’s still looking for his first goal.
Kulikov knew almost nothing about Ristolainen when he arrived in Buffalo this year, but he likes what he’s learned.
“He sees the ice well and makes plays under pressure,” Kulikov said. “He can also skate himself out of trouble, which for a defenseman is a big upside.”
Ristolainen is 22 years old, so there’s still room to grow and learn. Bylsma would like the defenseman to stand out even more in whatever ice time he gets.
“He needs to keep growing in his command of the ice, his ability to play with the puck,” Bylsma said. “Not just play defense, but play offense and play offense with the puck.”