Looking forward to the Devils #9 pick in this year's entry draft has a lot of people thinking "forward" given the team's shallow pool of prospects up front. There is still the chance that the team could take a defender though, as the Devils under Lou have always been an organization who values a good defense. While that's probably not what most fans want to hear, the team could certainly do worse than selecting Rasmus Ristolainen if it comes to that.
Who is Rasmus Ristolainen?
Rasmus Ristolainen is one of the top defensive prospects eligible for the 2013 NHL entry draft. Ristolainen is from Finland and has played his entire career in the Finnish league, SM-Liiga, and its junior counterparts. He has spent his time with the club TPS and has played most of his games with professionals in Finland's top league the past two seasons. He has played a bunch of games for Finland in international competition as well, from U16 up to U20 and World Juniors this past season.
Ristolainen is currently 18 years old and has a good-sized frame at 6'-3" and 207 pounds. He is rated the number four European skater by the NHL's Central Scouting Service in their final draft rankings (he was third at mid-term). The International Scouting Services' rankings have him slotted in at the number 11 spot overall, and their fourth best defenseman behind Seth Jones, Darnell Nurse, and Nikita Zadorov.
Among scouts, Ristolainen seems to be regarded as a very strong puck-moving defenseman. He's not necessarily a big hitter or a scoring machine, but he skates well and has good control of the puck. He's a big enough body that he can be physical with the puck in offensive and defensive zones, but his skating doesn't seem to be impeded by his size. Some mention that his defensive positioning needs work, but most seem to agree that he has good instincts at both ends of the ice. Basically, Ristolainen is regarded as a very strong two-way defensive prospect.
Rasmus Ristolainen Player Statistics
What Experts are saying about Ristolainen:
First, here's an excerpt from Elite Prospects short description of Ristolainen by Matias Strozyk:
Ristolainen moves the puck with confidence and though he's not a big-time hitter, he plays the body and likes to get physical in front of the net. He also has good mobility. ... He is good with the puck and solid defensively, but has also displayed ability to work the powerplay.
Ed Miller from The Hockey Writers is very high on Ristolainen and likes him as a possible choice for the defensively-challenged Flyers in this upcoming draft. Miller likes his skill set a lot, but does note that his positioning on defense is a bit lacking:
At 6-foot-4, 207 pounds, he’s already built like an NHL defenseman and his size allows him the ability to throw his weight around, though he’s not a big time hitter by any means. He’s certainly not afraid to get physical in front of the net ... The most appealing attribute of Ristolainen would have to be his ability to carry the puck, as he could very well be the best defenseman in the draft when it comes to puck movement ... The disadvantage of his strong puck skills is that the Finnish youngster has a lack of defensive awareness. Ristolainen still needs a great deal of work when it comes to where he should be positioned on the ice, as well as where his opponent is often positioned.
Corey Pronman from Hockey Prospectus has Ristolainen up at 8th in his draft rankings and is big on the Finn's instincts and likes his skills. Pronman feels RR has a good chance to break into the NHL pretty quickly, based on his will rounded skill set and good sense:
Ristolainen had a quality season in Finland, where he often logged tough, heavy minutes for TPS. That is an impressive role for an 18-year-old defenseman in that league. He is not a flashy player, but he does everything well. He best skill is his hockey sense. He thinks the game at a level well beyond his years, and he does not make many mistakes on the ice. ... He is a solid to above-average skater (I have heard an NHL scout classify him as high end in that area). His puck handling is at a similar level; he can flash significant offensive ability, but the bulk of value will come from his work in his own zone.
Maybe Ristolainen isn't a world-beater in any individual aspect of his game, but it appears that scouts and experts really like the combination of skills he brings as a player.
Here's a pretty decent highlight video of some of Ristolainen's play in Finland and at WJCs. Shows some decent ability to control the puck and seems to have a decently quick release on his shot. Ristolainen also checks a player into his own bench at one point, which is always fun. (Note: the song playing over the highlights has a little naughty language, so "earmuffs" for those of you with delicate sensibilities.)
Here's a short interview with Ristolainen by Hockey's Future at 2013 World Juniors. Nothing earth shattering here, just a few questions on Finland's WJC performance and a bit on looking forward to the upcoming season and NHL draft. First half of the video is actually with Buffalo prospect Joel Armial; Rasmus comes in at about the three-minute mark.
Here's another short highlight video of Ristolainen. Quality isn't great but it shows a few more goals from his time with TPS (plus a couple you already saw in the first video).
From what I've read on Ristolainen, it's hard not to like what I've seen about him. He's a big body who can carry the puck well and can control play at both ends of the ice. He can chip in a little bit offensively and has even logged some time on the power play. He has performed well and is playing big minutes for a professional team at 18 years old, so it would seem that he already has the maturity to play in a league of grown men. Going through all of the profiles on him, he actually starts to remind me of Adam Larsson a bit. Between the size, the two-way puck-moving skills, and the jump to the professionals at an early age, there are definitely some parallels there. As a prospect, I really do like what I've read on him.
All that said, I'm still not necessarily huge on using the #9 pick on Ristolainen. The Devils are painfully thin at forward in their organization and could really use this year's good draft pick to add a little juice back to the scoring side of the system. Ristolainen seems like a really nice prospect, and one that I probably wouldn't bet against becoming at least a decent NHL defender, but he doesn't seem like the kind of transcendent talent that you need to take if he's there at nine. If all of the forwards the Devils liked are off the board, then I feel like I'd like to see the team trade down a few spots with a team who really wants a strong two-way defender in their system. If they do end up taking Ristolainen, I won't be too broken up as I do think he's a quality prospect, but I'm in the camp that would prefer to see the Devils address a pressing organizational need if they can.
What about you? How would you feel about the Devils taking the big Finnish defenseman with their first-round pick? If he's the best guy out there, do they have to take him? Should they trade down or up depending on how things are shaking out, instead? What do you think of him as a prospect overall? Have at it in the comments below. Thanks for reading.