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Like his team, Sabres' Ristolainen off to a slow start

Rasmus Ristolainen took a general approach.

"I've just got to get better," the Sabres defenseman said Thursday. "That's it. I don't think I find one area that's been good all the time, but it's just all-around. I've got to just be better everywhere."

Phil Housley, after a quick compliment, was more specific.

"Risto has done a terrific job," the coach said in KeyBank Center. "His compete level and the way he plays the game, he does it the right way.

"I think it's just more puck decisions, doing things a little faster, getting back harder on the breakout, working for his partner a little bit better, getting shots off quicker in the offensive zone.

"Those things you can show him and you can work on, but his compete level is solid."

A high compete level is nice for any player, but Buffalo's No. 1 defenseman is expected to bring all the other things Housley mentioned. Like his team, Ristolainen is off to a slow start. He and the Sabres hope that changes Friday when Vancouver visits the arena.

"You can't change what happened," Ristolainen said. "You can change what's going to happen.

"Everyone knows we've got to play better. It's not easy to win in this league, and you have to earn it. We haven't really earned it."

The Sabres are 1-4-2, which puts them 14th in the 16-team Eastern Conference. The disappointing numbers extend to Ristolainen, who has no goals, three assists and a minus-5 rating through seven games.

As the NHL's runaway leader in ice time – Ristolainen averages a league-high 26:58 per game – it's no surprise that he is skating when a goal is scored. He's been on the ice for 14 of the opponents' 27 goals and eight of the Sabres' 18 goals.

The bigger problem is he's directly contributed to two goals by the opponent, with an asterisk for a third. He had a bad pass at center ice Tuesday in Vegas and whiffed on a pass attempt at the blue line Sunday in Anaheim. During the game against the New York Islanders on Oct. 7, he missed a pass from partner Nathan Beaulieu. The Isles stayed in the zone and scored.

He acknowledged puck management is important as Buffalo attempts to turn around its season.

"We've got to keep it simple, try to play more in the offensive zone because that's where you win the games," Ristolainen said. "We've got to close quicker so we don't have to spend that much time in our D zone. Just work hard and go after guys right away when they get in zone, don't give them space."

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The 22-year-old is already in his fifth pro season. He and the revamped defense corps were expected to grow under Housley, but it hasn't happened yet. The defensemen met in Housley's office for 10 minutes Thursday after a start that's featured no goals, five assists and a minus-13 rating.

"When you see points, especially with defensemen, a lot of that's on the power play," blue-liner Jake McCabe said. "Our power play obviously hasn't been producing like it will and it can. That probably has part to do with it.

"Another part is just us trying to find lanes and getting shots through, just getting more consistent and more comfortable with the system we want to run. We've had a lot of line-rush goals. We haven't had a lot of sustained offensive-zone pressure and goals that way. That will come, too."

Ristolainen had his share of time in the offensive zone in Vegas, and it led to a startling stat. The defenseman attempted nine shots, but not one was on net. It's obviously good he got that many looks, but he knows he has to make them count.

"You're not going to see it on the scoreboard," Ristolainen said. "It doesn't matter if you have zero or 10 shots if you don't score or get apples," the hockey slang for assists.

An apple a day by the defensemen would help Buffalo get its season moving.

"Just be ready to play right from the get-go," Ristolainen said. "We have a chance to do that."

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