Beyond Seth Jones, Rasmus Ristolainen may be a prime defensive candidate to join an NHL team’s blue line as early as next season.
The 18-year-old defenseman already has two seasons of high-level professional hockey under his belt, not something many in the 2013 draft class can put on their resumes.
“He’s an example of another player playing in the Finnish pro league,” said Tony MacDonald, the Hurricanes’ director of amateur scouting. “He’s arguably considered along with (Darnell) Nurse and (Nikita) Zadorov in that next grouping of defenseman behind Seth Jones because he has played with men and done very well, too.”
A native of Turku, Finland, Ristolainen has developed within his hometown HC TPS’ system. As a 15-year-old, he skated in five games for the TPS Under-20 squad and recorded a goal and an assist; he spent the majority of the 2009-10 season with the Under-18 team, making the full-time jump to juniors the following year.
Ristolainen made his SM-liiga debut as a 16-year old, skating in one game for TPS in the 2010-11 season. The next year, as a 17-year-old, he logged 40 games, eight points (3g, 5a) and 78 penalty minutes for TPS. Ristolainen played exclusively in the Finnish Elite League in the 2012-13 regular season, recording 15 points (3g, 12a) and 32 penalty minutes in 52 games.
Ristolainen, Central Scouting's fourth-ranked European skater, has represented his country in the IIHF World Junior Championship for two straight years. In the 2013 tournament in Ufa, Russia, he showed a nice bit of offensive upside, recording six points (2g, 4a) in as many games. He added 20 penalty minutes and a plus-5 rating.
“He captured everyone’s imagination a couple of years ago when he came and played in the World Juniors as an underage and played well,” MacDonald said.
The right-shooting defenseman’s top asset is arguably his versatility. While he’s one to take care of his own end first – and to a successful degree – he’s not afraid to throw pucks toward the net, as evidenced by his team defense-leading 17 shots on goal in the 2013 World Junior Championship.
Having shared ice sheets with men as much as twice his age for the last two seasons, Ristolainen possesses a mature two-way game for a teenager born in the mid-1990s. He moves the puck around with confidence and employs his 6-foot-3, 201-pound figure effectively in the defensive zone.
“He’s a big man, and he plays with a bit of a nasty edge to him, and I think that gets people’s attention,” MacDonald said.
Though perhaps a safe pick, Ristolainen could be a top-10 selection on Sunday based on his probable NHL-readiness alone.
“It’s more difficult for defensemen than it is for forwards to [jump into the NHL right away],” MacDonald said. “But, given where he’s been and what he’s accomplished to date, you would consider him to be pretty close to being able to play in the NHL right now.”
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