FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – For as long as he can remember, Rasmus Ristolainen has had one goal.
"Everything I do in life, I want to be the best," the Sabres defenseman said. "Why would you do it if you don’t want to be the best? I want to always be the best. I want to win."
Professional athletes need that drive or they wouldn't reach the highest level of their sport. But it takes a special mindset for a player to separate himself from the pack. Josh Gorges sees it in Ristolainen.
"He's starting to realize his potential, realize how good he is, and he wants to be the guy," the Buffalo defenseman said. "He wants to be the best, and you see that in his drive and how he prepares, how he practices when he gets on the ice.
"You can talk about the skill level and the ability to play the game with 50 different players in the league, and the difference in them isn't much. I think what separates good players, great players to the elite players is how they think the game, how they see the game, how they prepare and how they go out there. They're not OK with just being average or just being good. They want to be the best, and that drive is what takes them into what they're able to do.
"Especially the last little while with Risto, he's taken it on his shoulders to step up and be a difference maker."
After establishing himself as Buffalo's best defenseman, Ristolainen is making a case as the Sabres' best player. He's done it by putting himself alongside the NHL's biggest names.
With 21 points in 30 games, Ristolainen was fifth among defenseman entering Sunday's schedule. He was tied with Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith and Dustin Byfuglien. The 22-year-old was ahead of Shea Weber, P.K Subban and Drew Doughty.
Ristolainen has done most of his offensive work with the man advantage. He ranked 13th with 12 power-play points, tied with Connor McDavid, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and teammate Kyle Okposo. Ristolainen is a key reason Buffalo is fourth in power play at 22.9 percent.
"You see him start to develop into a force, joining the offensive play and being part of the five-man offensive thrust," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said.
Ristolainen has reached the score sheet in seven of the last nine games, recording two goals and 10 assists. His first goals have come in the past five games, and both were game-winners in overtime. Only Marian Hossa (three) has decided more games in OT.
"Through 20 games and maybe a handful of broken sticks, he hadn't scored a goal yet," Bylsma said. "Sure enough, now he's got two goals and handfuls of assists and is having a good season."
Ristolainen is on pace for 57 points after recording 41 last year. The biggest improvement, however, is his plus/minus ratio. The defenseman was minus-21 last season and minus-68 in his three-year career. He’s only minus-1 so far.
Of the 43 goals the Sabres have allowed at even strength, Ristolainen has been on the ice for just 17. That's despite being the runaway leader in ice time while playing against the opponents' top scorers.
"Our shutdown guy," Bylsma said. "He's a horse back there. We're talking about how he plays and how tough he is to play against."
Ristolainen has maintained a high level of play as his minutes have increased. He's fifth in the NHL at 26:37 per game, leading the Sabres across the board at even strength (20:06), power play (3:28) and penalty kill (3:02). He's topped 29 minutes eight times, including 30:11 this month against Washington.
"It's always fun as a defenseman when you're playing that many minutes," Sabres blue-liner Zach Bogosian said. "You're in the game and you're engaged mentally and physically.
"When you put someone with his caliber of skill in that much, he’s going to do well."
Ristolainen had a relatively easy 25:18 during Saturday's 2-1 shootout loss in Carolina. He and the rest of the Sabres took Sunday off. They'll practice Monday in Florida and visit the Panthers on Tuesday.
When they take the ice, Ristolainen's goal will be to improve on his previous game. When the next game comes, he wants to be better again. It’s the way his mind works, and it's working well so far.
"There's still a lot of things I need to work on," Ristolainen said. "I play a lot of different situations, so I can be better everywhere."