BUFFALO, N.Y. — Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen can finally focus on starting the season now that contract talks are out of the way.
“It’s great to get this done. Now I have a couple of days to turn my mind 100 percent for the season,” Ristolainen told The Associated Press by phone on Tuesday. “I’m 100 percent ready now.”
Ristolainen spoke a few hours after signing a six-year, $32.4 million contract in a deal reached two days before Buffalo opens the season by hosting the Montreal Canadiens.
Ristolainen was a restricted free agent, whose rights were retained by the Sabres in June.
“Rasmus has already proven to be a pivotal player on our blue line, and we are eager to have him back with the team,” general manager Tim Murray said in a statement released by the Sabres.
“This deal is a reflection of the hard work and improvement Rasmus has shown since being drafted. And we hope to see him continue on this trajectory moving forward.”
The 21-year-old Ristolainen has become Buffalo’s top defenseman in just three seasons since being selected in the first round of the 2013 draft. Last season, Ristolainen led the team in averaging more than 25 minutes of ice time per game, and led Buffalo defensemen with 41 points (nine goals, 32 assists).
Overall, he has 19 goals and 46 assists for 65 points in 194 games.
Ristolainen dismissed any added pressure that might come with a contract that makes him the team’s top-paid defenseman.
“I don’t even think about the contract or think about what people say or what people think,” he said. “I want to be better than I was last year. I want to win. That’s the only thing I really think.”
Ristolainen was confident a deal would get done before the season began, especially after negotiations sped up over the weekend. And he shouldn’t have a difficult transition in preparing for on-ice action because he was able to stay in game-shape over the past month.
He represented Finland in the World Cup of Hockey last month and then reported to Sabres training camp in what was regarded as a sign of good faith in a bid to spur contract talks. He practiced with the team, but was not allowed to play in preseason games.
Ristolainen’s signing means the Sabres should have their full complement of top-six defenseman available to open the season.
Veterans Dmitry Kulikov (bruised back) and Zach Bogosian (groin) returned to practice Tuesday, and coach Dan Bylsma expects them to be ready to play against the Canadiens. The Sabres acquired Kulikov in a trade with Florida in June.
The status of top-line forwards Ryan O’Reilly (back and abdomen spasms) and Kyle Okposo (bruised knee) remains uncertain. Both skated during individual drills before leaving the ice once the team session began.
Though both are improving, but Bylsma expressed concern about rushing them back into the lineup with limited practice time.
Buffalo established its 23-player regular-season roster by loaning four players — including forward Alexander Nylander, the team’s 2016 first-round draft pick — to its American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester. Also sent down were forwards Nicholas Baptiste and Daniel Catenacci. Defenseman Justin Falk will report to Rochester after clearing waivers.
Buffalo also returned defenseman Brendan Guhle to his Canadian Junior Hockey team in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.