So the Buffalo Sabres are taking the ice Friday for the first time in training camp and, lo and behold, Rasmus Ristolainen is going to be among them. Would not have given you a nickel to make that bet in April.
After a summer of workouts back home in Finland – and one infamous television interview where Uncle Google Translate made it pretty clear he wanted out of here – the big guy was at the microphone bright and early Thursday morning on Media Day in KeyBank Center.
Ristolainen didn't say much, but he said plenty, too.
He joked that he couldn't wait to see the packed room of reporters and cracked, "You've been waiting for this, eh?"
Eh. Sure have.
Ristolainen has never been big on cameras and microphones. But talk to him one on one and he's a pretty interesting guy, with plenty to say about his game and the team. If he was an All-Star, he'd have people around here imitating his voice all the time much the way they used to do with Dominik Hasek.
Every time I have a conversation with Ristolainen, you look up at the 6-foot-4-inch Finn and think of Dolph Lundgren as the classic Ivan Drago in "Rocky IV." Once in a while, he'll look at you quizzically and slowly say, "What is your question?" in such a way that it makes you think of Drago staring down Rocky Balboa and famously uttering, "I must break you."
Last year, of course, it was Ristolainen who broke.
That minus-41 rating is so ungodly it belongs flashing on the arena ribbon boards during practice the next three days so he doesn't forget it. There's no question Ristolainen wants out, and GM Jason Botterill has undoubtedly tried – and probably is still trying – to accommodate him.
Ristolainen started off here Thursday with the standard he-was-happy-to-be-back answer. Not what any of us was interested in. The real question: Are you surprised to be here (or as surprised as we were to see you standing in front of us)?
There was a pause. Nearly three seconds worth followed by a long "uhh." You know that old saying about saying everything by not saying anything?
"I mean, I’ve been here six years and I’ve seen this business," Ristolainen said when he finally spoke. "You never know where you will be next week or next month."
Did you request a trade?
"Conversations me and Jason have had are going to stay between us."
Do you expect to be here next week or next month?
"I can't control that so I don't need to really worry about it. I'm here now and I guess I'll be here tomorrow. I've got the schedule and I'm ready to work."
Later on in the presser: Would you be OK if you were still here by March?
"I'm not a guesser so let's leave it at the moment and go day by day."
It should be noted Ristolainen was much more upbeat than usual.
He was smiling at the beginning and end of his chat and smirking a little in the middle. With his cap backwards on his head, he looked relaxed. His body language was positive and not subdued. He wasn't distracted. He talked in almost reverent tones about new coach Ralph Krueger, who already has players swooning over him in a way that Dan Bylsma or Phil Housley never approached even in the best of times. We'll see how long that lasts.
The best thing Ristolainen can do is keep smiling and play better. The Sabres aren't just going to dump him, although they're going to have to figure out this dilemma of all the right-handed defensemen they suddenly have.
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) September 12, 2019
With camp starting, you wonder if the Sabres are realizing Ristolainen needs to re-establish his value around the league. Especially since he ruined their leverage by spouting off in that Finnish interview. Who's giving Botterill a big trade package now?
Come the trade deadline, Ristolainen might be a desired commodity with two years left on a reasonable deal for a big, right-shot blue-liner. And with players like Rasmus Dahlin, Brandon Montour and Colin Miller on the roster, it's the first season in a long time when the Sabres don't have to demand 25 minutes a night from Ristolainen.
In fact, as the numbers have proven, Krueger and Co. darn well better not demand that kind of playing time.
Ristolainen is a proud player and he wants his ice time, but that's got to be one of Krueger's first decisions. Ristolainen has to be cut back, sheltered to that 20-22 minute range. There are others here who can do heavy lifting, at both 5 on 5 and on special teams.
You want to criticize Ristolainen, go ahead. He deserves it, especially for the way last season cratered for both him and the team. But Ristolainen was properly hard on himself Thursday.
"I don't think anyone else besides me makes pressure for myself," he said. "It still doesn't matter if we have two right-handed D or 10 right-handed D. I want to push myself to be the best I can."
When asked what he needed to do to be better, Ristolainen pointed out that he changed his summer training. There were still plenty of tire-lifting shots on Instagram, but Ristolainen knows he needed to work on his speed, too, to improve his defensive zone play, which he referred to as "not my strength."
D-zone work doesn't have to be an absolute strength but it better get better. A lot better.
As long as he's here, the Sabres are still going to count on big things from Ristolainen. The question, of course, is how long will that be? Ristolainen just knows he'll be on the ice here Friday. After that? We're all just waiting.