By John Vogl
The Sabres' first pick in the draft Sunday, Rasmus Ristolainen, is ready to play in the NHL. He's a big defenseman with offensive skills who has been playing against men since he was 16. He has the talent and maturity to compete for a spot on the roster.
A potential star winger was also available at the No. 8 spot. Russian Valeri Nichushkin ranked high on many lists, including one from International Scouting Services. It pegged him as the fourth-best player in the draft behind Nathan MacKinnon, Seth Jones and Jonathan Drouin.
"He isn't your typical Russian offensive dynamo as he plays an intense two-way game and shows fantastic will to win in big games," ISS wrote. "Elite offensive playmaker who can dominate play with the puck."
The scouting service had Ristolainen at No. 11.
"Ristolainen is about as safe of a prospect as you could ask for," ISS wrote. "Prototypical No. 2 defenseman, he can play any role you need him to."
So why did the offensively challenged Sabres go with Ristolainen? The risk factor.
Nichushkin said he will play only in the NHL or KHL. Unlike Mikhail Grigorenko, who was willing to play in juniors and the minors, Nichushkin only wants the top leagues.
"It wasn’t quite the same as a Grigorenko story," said Kevin Devine, the Sabres' director of amateur scouting. "We thought that Ristolainen, he was close. Nichushkin, he could be a home run, but if things don’t work out …
"He’s been quoted in the paper as saying if he didn’t play and some things didn’t go right this year he was going back to the KHL. Then if he goes back there, do we ever see him again? Because those guys, the KHL is getting more of force. They just bought Jokerit of the Finnish elite league, so they’re coming in next year. They’re getting a little bit more to deal with."