Ristolainen Brings Pronger-like Skill Set into Draft
Rasmus Ristolainen isn't your typical Finnish defenseman.
He says he models his game after Chris Pronger of the Philadelphia Flyers, while claiming most NHL scouts have compared him to Shea Weber of Nashville Predators.
On top of that, his favorite NHL player not playing defense happens to be hard-hitting Boston Bruins power forward Milan Lucic.
Starting to get the picture?
The 6-foot-4, 207-pound right-handed shot enjoys a physical brand of hockey, something uncommon in European standouts on the verge of making the jump to North America. While you ponder that, consider the fact he also logged between 25 and 30 minutes a game for TPS in SM-liiga, Finland's top professional league, in 2012-13.
Ristolainen, No. 4 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of the top draft-eligible European skaters for the 2013 NHL Draft, doesn't shy away from the fact he enjoys that style of play, either. But he also supplies a solid offensive element.
He had three goals and 15 points in 52 games for TPS in 2012-13, and had two goals, six points, a plus-5 rating and 17 shots on goal in six games for Finland at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship.
"He plays that physical style and played big minutes with a team that that didn't do very well, and was the leading defenseman there," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com. "He's a mobile, strong, offensive-minded defenseman with very good puck-handling and passing skills. He's young, but he knows how to use his size and strength. He's one of the best young defensemen in Europe in his age group. He's a leader on the ice and plays with confidence."
In NHL.com's final mock drafts, two have him going in the top 11 picks, while a third believes he will go in the top 20.
There has been some concern with how Ristolainen will transition to the NHL, but there's no denying the upside in the native of Turku, Finland.
"I understand you have to have speed to do the things you want to do because everything comes faster [in the NHL]," Ristolainen said. "You have to pass faster and have to keep your head up all the time. When I'm offensive, I have to get the puck through to the net."
It's obvious Ristolainen understands all those things, but will he be able to carry out that strategy? He said he will do whatever it takes to secure a spot on a roster during training camp with whichever team drafts him.
"I have two more years left [on my contract in TPS], but my goal to go through training and try to get on the [NHL] team that selects me," he said. "It seems that no matter what team you play for nowadays, you have a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup. I had 26 interviews with teams [during the NHL Scouting Combine], and it's up to the team to pick me now. I have no favorites."
Ristolainen tested well during the fitness phase at the Combine. His most noteworthy finish came in the VO2 Max test, in which he lasted 14:00 on the grueling stationary bike, to place among the top five among the 101 prospects invited.
Ristolainen also proved to those reporters at the Combine that he possesses a sense of humor. After telling the media that Finnish goalie Juuse Saros was his roommate for the week, he provided this sly remark when asked who was in charge.
"I think I'm the boss in our room," Ristolainen said. "I'm bigger and older. He's just a junior."
The 5-foot-10.25, 178-pound Saros, Central Scouting's No. 1-ranked goalie, thought otherwise when asked who he thought was boss.
"I think it's 50/50, but he thinks he's the boss," Saros said.
Ristolainen said he hopes to be selected among the top 10 or 15 picks at the 2013 NHL Draft, which will be held June 30 at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. (3 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN), but knows he still needs to improve his overall game.
"My defensive-zone game is one area I must improve," he said. "In my first year in the elite league, I was horrible in my own zone but got better last year. I still need to work at it, and my coaches helped a lot. During the NHL [lockout], a lot of NHL players helped out a lot."
Among the players that returned were St. Louis Blues defenseman Kris Russell, who spent 15 games with TPS and was Ristolainen's defense partner.
"He would like to play with me and he helped me," Ristolainen said of Russell. "He has a level that he plays every night and he plays his best game; that was huge for me to see."
Ristolainen also said Olli Maatta, his defenseman partner at the World Juniors, also was a tremendous help to him. Maatta, who has spent the past two seasons with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, was taken by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round (No. 22) of the 2012 draft.
Ristolainen said he talked to Maatta whenever he had an opportunity.
"I've played him a lot and I know him well," Maatta told NHL.com. "He's a great player to play with. He made good plays and made you feel better, gets you more time. He's a little bit nasty in the [defensive] zone, gets big hits, which I don't do. I think we did well [together]."
Ristolainen didn't have to think to hard when asked to name his favorite Finnish player of all-time.
"Teemu Selanne is the best Finn ever," he said. "I'm a two-way all-round defenseman; maybe more like an offensive guy because I like to play with the puck, pass and shoot. But I know I won't score as many goals as Teemu."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer