In a matter of four months, Rasmus Ristolainen was drafted eighth overall by the Buffalo Sabres, uprooted his life to move from Finland to Western New York, made the roster on opening night as a rookie and was subsequently sent to Rochester.
All the while, the 6-foot-4 defenseman had to learn a new language, teach himself how to cook and adjust to hockey in North America. The transition was difficult. Still, Ristolainen, a rookie five seasons ago, is one of the few players who emerged from those lean years to help Phil Housley build a winning culture.
Ristolainen has become Housley's most trusted defenseman and quarterbacks Buffalo's power play. He's also tasked with shutting down an opponent's top forwards. Yet, Ristolainen is often reviled by fans on social media for what can appear to be an all-or-nothing approach to his position.
His minus-11 rating is tied for the fourth-worst mark in the league while the defenseman he's paired with, Jake McCabe, is a minus-1. At a glance, one would surmise that Ristolainen has fallen short of expectations, but those inside the locker room and on the coaching staff have a far different opinion.
"He's certainly been a catalyst," said Sabres assistant coach Steve Smith, who works with Ristolainen. "I think because he's getting more looks and more success and guys are finding him more often. He's been a catalyst for the other guys in a way that allows me to show everyone what we're trying to do."
Housley wants his defensemen more involved on offense. After all, the team didn't receive a goal from that group until the 28th game last season. They'll enter Friday's game in Winnipeg with eight goals through 18 games, including two from Ristolainen.
Smith, a three-time Stanley Cup winning defenseman with the Edmonton Oilers, was hired in July to get more production from that unit. Upon joining the staff, Smith met with Ristolainen, who explained he was often uncomfortable joining the rush last season because teammates either didn't see him open or didn't look for him.
"When you play better as a team overall you feel comfortable doing more," Ristolainen said. "Everyone is on the same page more than in the past."
That was also the Sabres' first year in Housley's system, which asks more of the defense. The team's improved its puck possession game, and one full season under Housley, has the entire group more involved. That can come at a price, though.
Defensemen joining the rush can leave the team susceptible to an odd-man rush the other way. Ristolainen was caught in that predicament last Thursday in Montreal, when he rushed behind the net in overtime, leading to a scoring chance for the Canadiens.
However, the shot went wide, and caromed toward Ristolainen, who skated up ice and beat Carey Price with a slap shot for the game-winner. Ristolainen was partly responsible for overtime losses to the Flames and Blue Jackets while either joining the rush or by turning the puck over in his own zone.
That's contributed to his troubling plus-minus, and advanced analytics, including a negative-30 shot differential when he's on the ice, show there's room for improvement.
"It's been all right – like the team, not consistent enough," Ristolainen said of his own play. "There's still a lot of room to improve. I'm still trying to find that next level to my game. You can't be satisfied, but I'm happy where the team is now. I'm a team-first guy. I do whatever it takes to win. That's why I play hockey."
Inexperience is no longer an excuse, either. Though Ristolainen turned 24 last month, he's played in 364 NHL games. When Smith noticed the plus-minus rating, he decided to rewatch each goal Ristolainen was on the ice for this season in hope of finding some sort of teaching point.
There wasn't one, Smith said. Though there were mistakes at times, Smith didn't think Ristolainen could have done anything differently on any of those goals.
"I have to say pleasantly surprised that there wasn’t a whole lot he could have done differently," Smith explained. "He was certainly a victim of circumstances. He’s played pretty well. He’s done a lot of things right. There are clearly things the whole team has to shore up defensively. We’re giving up too many chances each night, we’re giving up too many shots each night."
Some of those goals were with an empty net. Others occurred late in games when the Sabres were aggressively trying to rush up ice while trailing, leaving them susceptible to an odd-man rush. A few happened because of breakdowns by teammates. There's also the fact that Ristolainen often plays against an opponent's top forwards.
Ristolainen ranks seventh among NHL defensemen in ice time this season, averaging 25:24 per game, and Housley trusts him to play in any situation, including the power play, where he ranks sixth among defensemen in ice time. For all his time on the ice, Ristolainen has only 15 giveaways this season – 22 less than the Los Angeles Kings' Drew Doughty, who leads the league in the statistic.
Ristolainen worked out relentlessly in Finland this offseason to better prepare himself to withstand the rigors of a season and to have a greater impact in the offensive zone, like he did Saturday against the Vancouver Canucks when his shot on a rush set up Sam Reinhart's tying goal to send the game to overtime.
"Those are big plays he's able to make," said defenseman Marco Scandella, who was paired with Ristolainen last season. "He's a big time player. He fits really good in our system, in our team game. It's just great to have him."