The chatter continues to swirl around Rasmus Ristolainen. But with injuries on defense making it less likely the Buffalo Sabres would trade him before the start of the season, the veteran is back in games getting ready for his seventh season.
And there was no toe-dipping for Ristolainen, as he was in the thick of action in his preseason debut Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Serving as an alternate captain, he got lots of ice time as normal and put up the team's biggest hit in the Sabres' 5-3 win against the Leafs.
"It's always different to play games than work in the gym or practice," Ristolainen said. "It's good to get that first one out of the way. We got the win, so let's move forward. That's what you train for. You want to play with the guys. There's been a good buzz in the room and the city the last couple weeks. There's still a lot of work to do. "
While paired with Rasmus Dahlin, Ristolainen played 21 minutes, 38 seconds in the game – second on the team to newcomer Colin Miller's 22:07. He played 2:39 on the power play and 1:30 on the penalty kill. He was on the ice for one of Buffalo's goals and two of Toronto's, although one of those was a shot from behind the goal line flubbed by Sabres goalie Carter Hutton.
The big play came with 2:10 left, when Ristolainen crushed Toronto defenseman Tyson Barrie with a hard check in the neutral zone. There was no penalty on the play, although it was dangerously close to a knee-on-knee hit. Ristolainen's leg went up into Barrie rather than extending out, and that probably prevented an injury and penalty.
"He was coming down the middle, didn't keep his head up and I hit him," Ristolainen said. "He was all right. He played the shift after. All good."
"No worse for wear,” Barrie, who had not seen a replay, told Toronto reporters after the game. “Thankfully, I’m not hurt.”
— Leafs ALL Day (@LeafsAllDayy) September 22, 2019
The hand injury suffered by Brandon Montour last week might mean the Sabres start the season with Ristolainen, but there remains no shortage of speculation continuing to link Ristolainen to trade talks.
The intrigue is growing in Winnipeg, where the Jets suspended defenseman Dustin Byfuglien late Saturday night for failing to report to camp. The Jets could save the $7.6 million cap hit of Byfuglien, who is reportedly considering retirement, if he doesn't report by the start of the season.
They would like him back, however, and quickly said they would rescind the suspension if the veteran wants to return. It's much the same strategy Anaheim used when captain Scott Niedermayer didn't report to start the 2007-08 season after the Ducks won the Stanley Cup the previous spring. Niedermayer then reported, played the final 48 games of that season and all but two games the next two seasons before retiring in 2010.
Winnipeg's defense is awfully thin after the trade of Jacob Trouba to New York, Tyler Myers' decision to head to Vancouver in free agency and the Byfuglien situation.
And while many observers quickly connect the Jets to the Sabres because Winnipeg pro scouting director Peter Ratchuk is a former St. Francis student often in the press box at Sabres games, the Jets have a complicated cap situation. Taking Byfuglien's money out, they have more than $23 million of space but still have to sign restricted free agents Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine.
The Sabres didn't use Ristolainen for the first three preseason games and he revealed Saturday night the team was being cautious with him due to an unspecified minor injury. But Ristolainen has practiced hard the entire camp and has easily been one of the most vocal players on the club during workouts. That's how he often is, and nothing has changed there.
"I can't try to be anyone else. I just have to be myself," he said. "In the gym, wherever I am, work as hard as I can on the ice. Practice, do what coaches tell us, try to work as hard as possible, battle to get into the best shape I can. That's all you can do. That's why I have done so I'm really excited for the next few games and the regular season."
"He's feeling healthy and it's good to see him in action," coach Ralph Krueger said after the game. "He was definitely a huge presence for us out there tonight. It's good to have him on board in every single way."
Ristolainen has been a full participant at practice and if you hear some loud chatter during a drill – or some taunting of the other side during shootout or 3-on-3 competitions – it's likely Ristolainen doing his thing.
"He's a funny guy," said newcomer Henri Jokiharju. "He's a big guy, competing hard in the practice. He's pushing his teammates hard and that's good for our team having him in here, seeing him battling. It makes me and the other guys battle harder too."
"It's good to have him out there. He's always talking to me," Dahlin said. "He likes when it's a tough game."
Ristolainen had some spotty moments in the first period and was caught on coverage on Toronto's first goal as John Tavares had a tap-in after a spectacular skate deflection pass from Kasperi Kapanen. But his game improved as the night went on, something the Sabres certainly hope to see more of this week.
"Early on, it was more like chaos everyone trying to do everything," he said. "It was good to get the intensity up. I didn't really play that well I don't think but it's good to get the first one out of the way. ... Next week is huge, preparing to get ready for the regular season so I can be the best I can possibly be."