Sabres' Ristolainen earning his place among NHL's blue-line elite

At just 22 years old, Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen is already proving he's ready for the big stage.

The young blue-line stud has showed plenty of promise through the early goings of his career, particularly last season – his second full NHL campaign – when he broke out with a 41-point performance

Those 41 points ranked Ristolainen among the top 25 defenders in the game offensively – 24th, specifically – a notable achievement for a young defenseman on a less-than-stellar roster.

In 2016-17, he's already climbing that list at a feverish pace, emerging as one of the game's elite rearguards with the prime of his career still ahead of him.

Ristolainen has already amassed 31 points through 54 games this season, sitting just 10 back of his career-high with 28 games left on the Sabres' schedule. Should he continue to score at his current pace, he'll finish the season with a career-best 47 points by season's end.

He's done his best work on the man advantage, tying for the most power-play points among defensemen with 18 thus far. That special teams production has been a key reason for the Sabres climbing out of the middle of the pack and ranking second overall in man-advantage effectiveness in 2016-17.

Buffalo's mark of 23.3 percent on the power play sits just 0.3 percent back of the league-leading Columbus Blue Jackets.

But the most notable aspect of Ristolainen’s season isn’t his production, impressive as it may be. It’s the fact that he’s been eating up the fourth-most minutes of any NHL skater this season.

Ristolainen’s averaging a monster 27:08 minutes of ice-time this season, ranking him as one of only four NHL defensemen to skate for over 27 minutes a night – the others being well-known veterans Dustin Byfuglien, Ryan Suter, and Drew Doughty.

While he does see plenty of power-play time, Ristolainen is still boasting one of the league's highest workloads at even strength – his 20:42 even-strength minutes per game ranking fifth among all NHL blue-liners.

It’s a hefty assignment for a player just three years removed from being a teenager, but Ristolainen doesn’t seem burdened by the big-league expectations.

For Buffalo, the young defender's quick rise means the Sabres potentially have two of the most important franchise needs already locked up – 20-year-old Jack Eichel as the all-important No.1 center, and Ristolainen as the offensively inclined anchor on the back end.

Few contenders and Stanley Cup champions have achieved their success without those two slots filled. That's certainly true of the last three Cup champs.

Pittsburgh likely isn’t climbing back into the championship conversation without Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang, while Chicago and Los Angeles’ multiple Cup runs came on the backs of Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Anze Kopitar, and Drew Doughty.

Buffalo has plenty of work to do to build up the rest of their roster in the same mold as those league titans, but Ristolainen is undoubtedly doing his part, proving he's ready to carry the club's blue line as they begin their climb out of the NHL's basement.

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