The Buffalo Sabres avoided a potentially challenging situation to start their season by getting a deal done with No. 1 defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. The Finnish rearguard's contract is for six years and worth $32.4 million, according to the team.
Ristolainen had practiced with the Sabres during training camp after returning from the World Cup of Hockey. It isn't often you'll see an unsigned RFA in camp without a contract, but the player wanted to show the team he was serious about getting a deal done.
Now the Sabres can enter the season with their full blue line. Nobody on the team played more minutes than Ristolainen, who averaged 25:17 per game in 2016-17, which put him 10th among all league defensemen. He also finished in the top 25 among all blueliners with 41 points last season.
Coach Dan Bylsma talked a lot this offseason in various interviews that he probably needed to limit Ristolainen's minutes a bit more to make him more effective overall. It's not a bad idea, especially since Ristolainen's underlying numbers were less than impressive.
That said, this is a 21-year-old player who managed to break into the league as a teenage defenseman and has only gotten better with each passing year. His best years are in front of them and most of them are probably going to come on this deal he just signed. Especially if the Sabres can improve their blue line a bit more around him.
With an annual average of $5.4 million, he becomes the highest paid defenseman on the team. It also puts him in a range similar to recent RFA defenseman who signed long-term extensions off of their entry-level contracts. Seth Jones signed almost the same deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets earlier this summer, for example.
Ristolainen still has more to prove in terms of being that long-term cornerstone defenseman the Sabres need as they continue to work their way back to competitiveness. He certainly has a good chance to become just that, however, as he continues to develop on the job.