The recruiting pitch to bring Arttu Ruotsalainen to Buffalo included Assistant General Manager Steve Greeley's visiting Finland to watch the 21-year-old center play and a number of phone calls by Sabres management.
The Sabres did not care that Ruotsalainen went undrafted twice or that some scouts wondered if his 5-foot-9, 181-pound frame would allow him to play center in the National Hockey League. Ruotsalainen's age, skill and position made him a priority, and their pursuit ended when he signed a three-year, entry-level contract May 8.
To Ruotsalainen, signing with Buffalo was the first step in a dream that dates back more than a decade. Now he must prove he belongs in the NHL, beginning with the Sabres' Prospects Challenge — his first real test on the smaller North American ice surface.
"This is a big chance," Ruotsalainen told The Buffalo News on Friday morning. "First time playing games here. I’m trying to show my best and do all I can on the ice. I want to enjoy every moment I’m here. Be myself."
Ruotsalainen might only have a few weeks to show the Sabres he is ready to help them in 2019-20. His contract with the team stipulates that he must return to Finland for one more season if he does not make the NHL roster out of training camp, unless his club, Ilves, allows him to play in Rochester.
Ilves might not want to part with Ruotsalainen. After all, he led the team in goals (21) and points (42) last season, while leading Liiga in average ice time per game and total faceoffs. He trained with Ilves throughout the summer, yet he was unable to practice much on a smaller ice surface.
The Sabres don't have any concerns about Ruotsalainen making that transition. Winger Victor Olofsson and center Rasmus Asplund, both of whom played in Sweden prior to coming to North America, had success during their first season with the Amerks.
Sabres management also plans to keep Ruotsalainen at center, his natural position, during his first NHL training camp, despite the depth chart including Jack Eichel, Casey Mittelstadt, Dylan Cozens and Asplund.
According to Assistant General Manager Randy Sexton, Mittelstadt and Cozens are capable of playing the wing in the NHL, so the team won't hesitate to add more talent down the middle. While the Sabres will evaluate Ruotsalainen as a center, Sexton acknowledged the position's defensive responsibilities can prove challenging for shorter players.
"It was a number of things: his hockey sense, skill, the pace he plays, the intensity he brings and his age," Sexton said of what attracted the Sabres to Ruotsalainen. "We’re trying to build a core group of players here in Buffalo kind of in the 18-25 range. ... He’s a young player that fits the way we want to play and fits in that age range. He might not be that tall, but he’s broad, thick and stocky. This will be a great test for him this weekend."
Ruotsalainen is already showing he should be mentioned among the Sabres' top prospects. He scored in his debut with the team, shooting his own rebound in the back of the net during Friday night's 6-4 win over the New Jersey Devils in Harborcenter.
Ruotsalainen also played well defensively, won most of his faceoffs and showed he can excel on the forecheck. Though he attended the Sabres' development camp in June, a strong performance at the Prospects Challenge is more important because this is when the team's management evaluates players ahead of training camp.
Ruotsalainen's first impression has to be encouraging for the Sabres. He's only one year removed from scoring nine goals among 20 points in a career-high 60 games with Ilves, and he scored only six goals in 85 regular-season games from 2015 to 2017.
Those early struggles scared off NHL teams when Ruotsalainen was draft-eligible. He was a highly touted junior player — he led his team in scoring as a 15-year-old in 2012, despite being teammates with Carolina Hurricanes star center Sebastian Aho. However, Ruotsalainen struggled upon being promoted to Finland's top professional league. He was only 17 at his first training camp with Assat, where he spent his first two seasons.
An increased role in Ilves, as well as talented linemates, led to the breakout in 2018-19, Ruotsalainen said. He also scored two goals among seven points in seven playoff games.
"In the beginning I played really well and I got a lot of ice time – maybe too much sometimes – but I gained confidence," Ruotsalainen said with a laugh. "I noticed I can play in the pro league, score some goals and help the team win. Maybe the biggest thing was I played with a good line and I got a lot of ice time. I didn’t think too much. I just enjoyed every moment and tried to help the team win."
The Sabres have not told Ruotsalainen if he will play wing when training camp opens Friday. He views himself as a center and plans to prove he can remain there in the NHL. However, he'll be on a roster in which even veterans such as Zemgus Girgensons must earn playing time under new coach Ralph Krueger.
"I think I need to play my own game," Ruotsalainen said. "I need to defend well and skate. Do a lot of work and show that I have a high work ethic. Show my skills with the puck. Be myself on the ice. That’s the biggest thing for me. I need to play the way I did last year. I need to do that here. Of course, players here are better than back in Finland, but I need to learn and improve myself."
Story topics: Buffalo Sabres