When it came time for the Edmonton Oilers to make the seventh overall selection at the 2013 NHL Draft, they had an impressive array of choices. Winger Valeri Nichushkin, a 6’4” scoring Russian, would have added size up front. Bo Horvat was the kind of responsible two-way centre every team needs.
And then there were two defencemen. The one they picked was Darnell Nurse, the fast, physical OHL’er generally projected as a tough-as-nails top pair shutdown defenceman. The one they passed on was Rasmus Ristolainen, the big, fast, right-shooting Finnish puckmover.
He has huge upside. Big and strong with great upper body strength despite still being a beanpole. Wait until he adds a few pounds to that hulking 6’5” frame. He’s just miserable to play against now: throws opponents around with authority and plays a mean, nasty game. Throws big hits along the boards and in open ice. He has a very long stride and reach with good lateral movement. Plays a positionally steady game in own end. Strong penalty killer who uses his body/stick to eliminate shooting and passing lanes. Cleans men out in front of net. Clears rebounds and ties up his check, preventing second chances. Can be a dominant force and top pairing shutdown defender. Offensive game emerged in 2nd half. Started moving up into the rush decisively, showing good timing and instincts. Makes a good first pass and skates with his head up, looking to make plays. Also good recovery speed.
—Red Line Report, 2013 Draft Guide
It’s easy to see why Edmonton was excited about this player. There isn’t a fan of the game who doesn’t appreciate the value of an ill-humoured defenceman and one who consistently plays that way is hard to find. But that was just the metaphorical cherry on top; Nurse also brought speed, smarts and an emerging offensive game to the mix.
He hasn’t put that all together in his rookie NHL season, but just wait until he does. And there’s no reason to be dissatisfied with his development path. Nurse has progressed every year since he was drafted, and his offensive game has developed, too.
- 2012-13, OHL: 68GP, 12G-29A-41PTS (82NHLE: 14 points)
- 2013-14, OHL: 64GP, 13G-27A-50PTS (82NHLE: 18 points)
- 2014-15, OHL: 36GP, 10G-23A-33PTS (82NHLE: 21 points)
- 2015-16, NHL: 41GP, 2G-6A-8PTS (82NHLE: 16 points)
There’s been a slight step back since he jumped into the NHL, but that’s to be expected. Nurse has been described as physically dominant at every level he’s played, and the NHL is a much more difficult league.
He is getting absolutely crushed by the underlying metrics, and that too is to be expected. When he’s on the ice the Oilers get just 44 percent of the shots and 42 percent of the goals; the former is the worst number on the team and the latter is awfully close to it. In the games Nurse has played, the Oilers have a 44 percent Fenwick rating when he’s on the ice and a 51 percent Fenwick rating when he’s off it.
It would be nice if this wasn’t happening, but it’s not at all surprising that it is. He’s a 20-year-old defenceman being tossed into big minutes on the toughest league on Earth. He’ll struggle for a while before he starts to swim.
Physically already a man and playing big minutes in the SM-liiga. Strong as a bull with a powerful stride that eats up ice. All compass skater with lateral agility, deft footwork and speed. Good stickhandler with soft hands is comfortable with the puck on his blade, moves it well under pressure. Makes very good breakouts – firm and accurate, and connects on long homerun passes through the neutral zone. Will push the puck up ice aggressively and join the rush. His awareness, smarts and skating ability often help him avoid forecheckers and find openings for transition plays. Capable point man on the PP, but doesn’t display much creativity and could utilize his powerful shot better. Good physical presence along the boards and in front of the net. Has greatly improved his defensive game from a few years ago, but still needs to read and anticipate developing plays quicker.
—Red Line Report, 2013 Draft Guide
Buffalo snatched up Ristolainen with the pick right after the Oilers’ selection. In a lot of ways his scouting report reads like Nurse’s; he’s a big, strong defenceman with excellent mobility, brains and an emerging offensive game.
Unlike Edmonton did with Nurse, the Sabres decided to fast-track Ristolainen. He was bumped directly into the AHL in his first year with the team—I got to watch him play against Oklahoma City in January that year, where he was repeatedly victimized by Will Acton—and split the campaign between the majors and the minors. He’s been a full-time NHL’er since.
Offensively, he’s having a breakout campaign with the Sabres:
- 2012-13, SM-liiga: 52GP, 3G-12A-15PTS (82NHLE: 9 points)
- 2013-14, NHL: 34GP, 2G-2A-4PTS (82NHLE: 10 points)
- 2014-15, NHL: 78GP, 8G-12A-20PTS (82NHLE: 21 points)
- 2015-16, NHL: 50GP, 8G-23A-31PTS (82NHLE: 51 points)
Ristolainen’s underlying numbers show a steady course of improvement. His first year in the NHL he clearly wasn’t ready, as he was the worst of Buffalo’s regular defenders. He improved somewhat in his second year, but the disaster that was the 2014-15 Sabres obscured that somewhat. This year he’s been given a steady diet of defensive zone starts and tough competition, and given that context his mediocre shot metrics actually look pretty good.
And, of course, he’s enjoying a breakthrough offensive campaign, both at even-strength and on the power play.
Right now, Ristolainen is ahead of Nurse. He may or may not stay there; we’re not even three years out from the draft yet and we’re seeing one player in the midst of a breakthrough and the other making the jump to the NHL. Next year will be a truer comparison, though it’s going to take a leap for Nurse to catch his peer.
The one thing we can absolutely say for sure is that Ristolainen would be a better roster fit today, given his right shot; it’s easy enough to imagine him paired with Andrej Sekera while Oscar Klefbom carries the other top-four tandem. Edmonton could also really use a player with Ristolainen’s offensive dimension.
But it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and one that’s going to be fascinating to follow over the years.