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Raising Ristolainen: Sabres' first-round pick growing in Rochester








The year: 2022.

The place: The Olympic games.

The event: Men's Hockey – Gold medal game

The tournament has come down to hockey's two world super powers: Finland and Canada. The lights go down for the national anthems. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, with a “C” on his sweater, leads the Blue and White onto the ice. The 6-foot-4 star defenseman stares across the the center-ice logo at Canada's future Hall of Fame captain Steven Stamkos.

Finally, after a long road that saw the Fins beat Jack Eichel, John Gibson and the talented USA team, it is time for Finland to play for gold.

The puck drops. The five-time All-Star Ristolainen grabs the puck, blows through Cananda's zone and sets up teammate Tuevo Teravainen for a one-timer goal. On the next shift, he lays a booming hit on speedster Connor McDavid in the corner. The 26-year-old defenseman breaks up a 2-on-1, then creates a rush of his own, ending in a 100 MPH slapshot.

After being named Tournament MVP, the Sabres' $100 million defenseman returns to Buffalo to a screaming crowd at the airport – all on hand to celebrate his gold.

Meanwhile, AHL assistant coach Drew Bagnall is sitting in his office, watching proudly on TV. He listens to NBC and TSN rave about his former defense partner with the Rochester Americans. None of the analysts mention Bagnall's name. None of the writers call him for an interview about his ex-teammate.

Ristolainen remembers, though. So do the fans who watched him play in Rochester eight years before. They recall Bagnall communicating with the raw rookie on the ice. The Amerks' beat reporter talks with a life-time season ticket holder about the former captain teaching the Finnish star day after day, helping him understand a balance between carrying the puck and playing a sound defensive game.

The Amerks employees remember how Bagnall and Ristolainen dominated their way to a Calder Cup title.

OK, that might be setting the bar a little high. But back in 2014, the Amerks have won 12 of their last 16 games and the Sabres' 18-year-old prospect is taking giant hops, skips and jumps forward in his game.

Prospects who become NHL players often have a moment – one that you can pinpoint – where their mental game and confidence starts to catch up with the raw talent that got them drafted high. For Zemgus Girgensons, it was against the Toronto Marlies in the AHL playoffs last season. All the sudden, the Sabres' first-rounder started carrying the puck, getting to the front of the net and becoming a force in both zones.

Ristolainen may still hit pot holes along the way, but his moment may very well have come in the Amerks' last home stand in which they went 3-0-1.

In the four-game stretch, he took registered three assists, was plus-3 and took 12 shots on goal. He was also on the ice in overtime against the AHL's best team the Texas Stars and with 48 seconds left in a 3-2 game against one of the league's hottest teams the San Antonio Rampage. You do not see that often from an 18-year-old.

Right next to him in those key situations? Bagnall. In the win over the Stars, Ristolainen set up his veteran D partner for a pass to Phil Varone for the game-winning goal.

After the game, head coach Chadd Cassidy called it the best of the season for his rookie defenseman.

“He was really solid defensively, didn't lose any battles, stayed in his battles, his shifts were shorter, good puck movement and he was patient with his offense,” Cassidy said. “And he made a great play on the game-winning goal with the pass to Bags. That is a big time play.”

When Ristolainen was first sent down to Rochester, he was trying too hard to make big time plays on every shift. He carried the puck too often, which resulted in him taking unnecessary punishment from opponents. You hear all the time that the answer is “simplifying the game.” Often that is nothing more than coach speak – but this time it is the truth.

“He is such a big body guy and has the ability to out-muscle players out there,” Bagnall said. “That is what we need him to do – to stop guys from getting to the front of the net. Just focusing on the defensive side of the game and knowing that is going to create offensive chances for our forwards.”

The Amerks' captain is one of the brightest players you will run across. Buffalo brought him into the organization for his intelligence, work ethic and leadership. What they may not have known is how willing he is to help prospects learn the game.

Even when he was injured for a short time, Bagnall, in suit and tie, hung around the locker room breaking down the game with young players.

“Drew is a good mentor and a good leader,” Cassidy said. “He is someone that Rasmus can trust. He is a guy that is going to talk the whole game. He never stops talking, which is great. It is by design. I think that is going to be a good partnership.”

“He helps me a lot,” Ristolainen said. “I try to help him. We think about the game the same way. It is easy to play with him. I like it very much.”

While Bagnall and Cassidy are doing all they can to raise Ristolainen right, his success is on his shoulders. And there are indicators that he understands that. When you talk about “makeup” and intangibles, one of the important factors for young players is whether they listen to instruction.

Some prospects think they have it all figured out and refuse to make changes required to take the next step. That is not the case with Ristolainen. He has made the changes required and seen the results.

“The last two weeks I have taken a steps forward,” he said. “But before that I had a couple tough weeks and didn't play that well. It's going well now and I'm trying to keep it going.”

Now, this is normally the point where we talk about how Ristolainen still has things he can improve. But there is not a whole lot he can change. It is really about playing games. Repeating situations over and over. Matching the work ethic of Bagnall off the ice to maintain his body through a full season.

When will we see him back in Buffalo? The Finnish D-man could be back next year. The Sabres might be wiser to keep him in Rochester for another half year in 2014-15. Being too ready is much better than not ready enough.

So it will be awhile before we find out whether Ristolainen can reach his full potential. But with his talent, the 2022 scenario is not that far-fetched.


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