ANAHEIM, Calif. – Rasmus Ristolainen placed his right hand against the wall opposite his stall inside the Honda Center dressing room and did not hesitate when asked what the Buffalo Sabres' 5-0-1 start to the season means to him.
"Great," the 24-year-old defenseman said with a slight smirk Tuesday afternoon. "Everyone wants to win, especially guys who have been here long. It hasn’t been like this yet, so I'm excited. Everyone’s excited. It’s nicer to come to the rink when we’re playing really well and that’s how we’ve won games. It hasn’t been luck. We’ve played well."
Ristolainen is tempering that excitement, though. His six previous seasons in Buffalo have prepared him for the arduous road ahead. He and the Sabres won 10 consecutive games last November, only to endure a second-half collapse that resulted in an eighth straight season without postseason hockey.
While Ristolainen expressed confidence in his teammates and the new man behind their bench – he said Ralph Krueger "might be the best coach" he's had as a professional – the past has taught him to focus on the present.
"Yes, I’m happy," Ristolainen said ahead of the Sabres' matchup Wednesday against the Anaheim Ducks. "You want more and more. This means nothing if we [mess] up next game. It’s the past now. We’re on a good pace right now and we just have to keep doing it. Last year, we played one month well but who [cares] about that month anymore? Right now it’s good but I’ve been here a long time. I know how many games we have left. Last year, the biggest games start in January and February. They’re huge. The closer we get to the playoffs, that’s where you want to play your best hockey. … We have to get better every day."
That's the competitor in Ristolainen. He wants to win. That's been the case well before the Sabres drafted him eighth overall overall in 2013. His demeanor and outlook have changed drastically over the past six months, though.
Ristolainen would not commit to returning for 2019-20 when asked about his future at locker cleanout in April. He didn't crack a smile or speak glowingly about the Sabres' progress in Phil Housley's final season. Instead, Ristolainen told reporters that players needed to hold themselves to a higher standard, there needed to be more accountability inside the dressing room. Those comments led to him being the subject of trade rumors throughout the summer, and his conversations with a Finnish reporter in August seemed to indicate he preferred a change of scenery.
Upon arriving in Buffalo for training camp last month, Ristolainen would not commit to being with the Sabres beyond that day, let alone the rest of the season, and though he was optimistic about Krueger, the two had yet to work together.
There haven't been any signs of possible bitterness during the past six weeks. Ristolainen has continued to communicate with teammates on the ice and often smiles during practice drills. He treasures the way Krueger is able to relate to players and how the coach has adjusted the Sabres' practices to accommodate a chaotic October schedule.
"He’s a great human being," Ristolainen said. "A really good talker. The speeches he’s giving us, I think that gives everyone energy and keeps everyone motivated. The style we play, I think everyone bought into it and everyone knows their roles. It’s [translating to success] on the ice."
In addition to team success, Ristolainen seems to be at the top of his game, and his role hasn't changed under Krueger. Ristolainen is averaging a team-high 24:21 of ice time per game – a decrease of only 17 seconds from last season – and has two assists with an even plus-minus rating through six games.
Ristolainen finished last season with an NHL-worst rating of minus-41, which isn’t necessarily an accurate representation of his overall performance, but is the second-worst mark by any player since the 2004-05 lockout and tied for the worst in franchise history.
Under Krueger, Ristolainen has contributed on the power play and penalty kill, and he reunited with Jake McCabe on the Sabres' top defense pairing. Their physicality has frustrated opponents in the defensive zone, and Ristolainen's talent with the puck has continued to tantalize.
Previous Sabres coaches spoke of wanting to decrease Ristolainen's ice time to better position him for success. Krueger, though, doesn't see the need to limit Ristolainen, who has been trusted to close out tight games and still is playing against an opponent's top players.
"It’s not that we really sit and have a target," Krueger said of Ristolainen's ice time. "We’re trying to definitely have maximums that we want to hit and avoid. But with him, because he’s playing multiple roles and matched up often with top lines of the other team, plus the PK and power play time he gets, [that] will get him these minutes. It’s more important that he keeps that quality high, which he has been. The aggressive side of him is very helpful too, without the puck. ... Just a very complete player."
Ristolainen appears more comfortable and confident in the defensive zone, which he attributes to "all five guys are playing for the same system and are on the same page." He explained how the 10-game win streak last November made the second-half struggles even more difficult. Ristolainen finally experienced a run of success in Buffalo, yet, the end result was the same.
Ristolainen has played 430 regular-season games without appearing in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He isn't able to watch much of the postseason, either, since the games typically don't start until the middle of the night in Finland. However, Ristolainen has spoken to former teammates who have played beyond the regular season.
Those conversations fuel Ristolainen. Although he acknowledged progress has been made and didn't hide his excitement for the Sabres' hot start, his goal is to finally experience prolonged success.
"I know what it’s about," Ristolainen said of playoff hockey. "Players I’ve played with here in the past, they’ve told me everything about it. That’s why I play hockey: I want to win. That’s what we’re aiming to do."