Rasmus Ristolainen has now played two full seasons in the SM-Liiga, which is notable because most prospects coming out of Finland over the years don't even play one before getting drafted. When I wrote about Aleksander Barkov, I mentioned that more teenage forwards were performing well in the SM-Liiga than ever before; at least right now, that's not really true of defensemen. In fact, over the last thirty drafts, just four defensemen have been drafted out of the SM-Liiga with one of the first forty picks:
If we remove the requirement to be drafted with one of the first forty picks and simply look for players who played at least forty games in the SM-Liiga during their draft year, our list doesn't get much longer:
So, fair to say that what Ristolainen is doing is fairly unusual. You'd be able to point to his age as one reason that Ristolainen is getting this opportunity when others didn't if not for the fact that, once again, Ristolainen played a full season in the SM-Liiga in 2011-12. And it's not like Ristolainen was just barely getting into the games this year: no, he played 21:40 per game, a sharp increase from the 16:33 he played in 2011-12.
The problem for me is that, while it's a good sign that he's playing in a tough league at such a young age, projecting him statistically when no one else takes that career path is a bit of a mystery. With Ristolainen playing so little against other draft-eligible players, scouts have a similar problem. When the year began, Red Line Report had Ristolainen fourth on their list, saying that "Ristolainen has a higher upside than Ryan Murray". By November, he'd fallen to seventh, and by December it was eighth, but mostly because a couple players behind him were having impressive seasons in leagues where an impressive season is a lot easier to recognize. Corey Pronman started him in eighth, and though there's been some shuffling of players both in front and behind, that's where he has him today. Craig Button liked him less than those two at the start of the season, placing him 19th, and he still likes him less now, placing him 25th.
It seems to me that people are mostly moving around Ristolainen on these lists, and that he's basically being treated as a constant. His play in Finland is impressive enough to beat most of the second tier prospects for most people but not so obviously impressive that he's going to beat out anyone in the top tier. His big opportunity to change that was at the World Juniors, and though he played well, Team Finland had a disappointing tournament, and as a result, Ristolainen didn't move much on the draft lists. Everyone seems to agree that he's got tremendous hockey sense, that he can move the puck reasonably well, that it's impressive he's playing well in a tough league like the SM-Liiga, and that he's likely going to be a good NHL defenseman for many years (Button, for example, said "Rasmus is close to NHL ready... he will be a long-time NHL player").
Because of that consensus, the fact that we haven't seen many players take this path to the NHL, and the fact that his offensive projection is pretty close to Joni Pitkanen's, I think Ristolainen has a decent chance to surprise people positively when he arrives in North America. That possible upside has me pushing Ristolainen a bit higher than where he sits on the consensus list.
Next up tomorrow morning: Nikita Zadorov
My Draft List:
1 - Nathan MacKinnon (Comparables)
2 - Jonathan Drouin (Comparables)
3 - Seth Jones (Comparables)
4 - Aleksander Barkov (Comparables)
5 - Elias Lindholm (Comparables)
6 - Valeri Nichushkin (Comparables)
7 - Sean Monahan (Comparables)
8 - Rasmus Ristolainen
9 - Darnell Nurse (Comparables)
10 - Hunter Shinkaruk (Comparables)