Contract: $925,000, RFA this summer
Introduction: Rasmus Ristolainen was drafted with this season in mind, that he would be the top pair defenseman on a young team, bringing a blend of skill and power to the position. With the 'tank' happening over the last couple of seasons, he ended up playing a lot more minutes way earlier in his career than we had expected, but he looks like he has learned from the experience.
The 2015-16 season saw him cement his position in the defensive depth chart playing all 82 games, and he hit new highs in all scoring metrics. His 41 total points was higher than Tyler Myers' 37 in 2010-11, and is the highest scored by a Sabres d-man this decade. Just over half those points came on the power play, and he has plenty of potential to improve there too - the 21 PP points is only surpassed by Brian Campbell and Jaroslav Spacek (twice each) from the playoff years over ten years ago.
Key Stats: 25:15 TOI/GP and 202 shots, both just in the top ten in the League for defencemen. At 21, Risto is at least five years younger than anyone else in the top ten for time on ice. Let that sink in as we talk about defenseman being the hardest position to learn for youngsters. Ristolainen is a foundational element of this team, and Dan Bylsma's usage of the youngster shows it too.
Thumbs Up: Risto does everything required of him as a defenseman. He blocks shots, hits forwards, clears the blue ice around the goalie, gets pucks out of the zone, joins the rush, pinches decently enough and is a big part of the special teams setup. He's got plenty of time to continue to add muscle and work on different aspects of his game.
Thumbs Down: The advanced stats do not look good for the Finn. A lot of this is not necessarily his fault, with him being pitted against some of the best players in the League in tough situations every night. He hasn't had the benefit of playing with a Shea Weber or Drew Doughty next to him, but with that being said, there are still some things he needs to get better at, especially his positioning in the defensive zone.
Memorable Moment: Between scoring some good goals and hitting everything in sight, this was a coming of age season for Ristolainen, and one of our favorite highlights was when he refused to be bullied by Russian superstar Alexander Ovechkin and deposited him on his backside.
Ristolainen lays out Ovi pic.twitter.com/3T0IfuN8VP— Stephanie (@myregularface) December 31, 2015
Things got even better for him though, with the youngster scoring a hattrick against the Calgary Flames in one of the best Sabres games of the season (first goal, second goal, third goal). He was the first Sabres dman to record a hat trick since Phil Housley in January 1988.
No one said it has to be pretty. Ristolainen from a strange angle completes the natural hat trick. #RR55 #BUFvsCGY pic.twitter.com/RHNKBNLSa3— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) December 11, 2015
Voting: Using the good old grade school system of A, B, C, D, F, with A representing a great season (for the Sabres) C an average season, and F a very poor season, grade Rasmus Ristolainen on his performance this year.