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Build from the Blue Line: Sabres 1st Round Selections

I always look forward to the opportunity to head down to the arena for the Buffalo Sabres annual Draft Party. The fanfare, the locker room tours and, of course, watching the draft unfold from the lower bowl. And this year was no different.

As the afternoon drew closer to seeing the Sabres make their pick, a group of fans in my section joined me as we crossed our fingers, waiting to hear the name we all thought Kevin Devine (Sabres Assistant GM) would announce as the Sabres eighth overall pick, Valeri Nichushkin. The big board showed that the pick was in, and it was none other than… Rasmus Ristolainen, a Finnish defenseman who played the last two seasons with TPS of the SM-liiga. There was an aura of shock as our little group wondered how the Sabres could pass up on the best power forward in the draft, Nichushkin.

But you take a look at Ristolainen and you begin to see why. Selecting the big, 6-foot-3, 210 pound defender at eighth overall was a smart move for the Sabres whose defense was a major weakness this past season. Considered by some to be the second best defenseman available in this draft, the two-way defender plays a physical game. And although he doesn’t go out of his way to make a big hit, he makes his physical presence known. Fellow countrymen, Olli Maata, likes Ristolainen’s nasty side in his own zone.

Defensively, he is poised and doesn’t try to do too much. He reads the game well and displays good defensive awareness. NHL Director of European Scouting, Goran Stubb, sees a leader who plays the game with confidence. On the other side of the puck, Ristolainen is noted for his heavy shot, his mobility and ability to distribute the puck. In his two years in the SM-liiga, Ristolainen has totaled 23 points in 93 games.

A friend of 2011 Sabres first round pick Joel Armia, the young defender is a player some believe is already NHL ready. With NHL size and two years of experience in Finland’s top men’s league, it would not be out of the question to imagine Ristolainen cracking Buffalo’s opening day lineup this season.

Eight picks later, at 16th overall, Buffalo would again go defense. And again, the Sabres went big… really big. Checking in at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Russian import, Nikita Zadorov will add serious muscle to the Sabres defensive corps. After joining the London Knights this past season, Zadorov experienced great success. Tallying 25 points in 63 games. He also boasted an impressive plus-33. A raw talent, one attribute that stands out is his skating ability, especially for his size. Central Scouting’s Chris Edwards considers Zadorov’s backwards skating the best in the draft.

However, the young Russian blueliner’s claim to fame is his physical acumen. We’ve already discussed his size, but more important is the fact that he uses it effectively. Zadorov can drop the gloves to stand up for his teammates, deliver huge hits and will not shy away from any puck battles. His great reach also affords him the possibility to be an effective poke checker.

Although he feels he is ready to play in the NHL next year, Zadorov is likely to spend more time with London before making the jump to the pros.

After reinforcing their blue line pipeline with their first two picks, Buffalo had a wealth of options remaining in this draft.

-Mike Repertorio

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