by Justin Ritzel || AHL On The Beat Archive
It’s no secret to anyone who has witnessed a Rochester Americans game over the past few months that the defensive duo of Rasmus Ristolainen and Drew Bagnall has been of critical importance to the Amerks’ recent surge through the American Hockey League.
Who would have expected such early returns from two players who have tread such different paths to AHL careers? One is a recent first-round draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres, while the other is a 426-game AHL veteran. Call it luck, chance or good team management, the pairing of Ristolainen and Bagnall has been a key contribution for the 27-18-3-4 Amerks.
Their good fortune together, however, is that much more interesting considering the differing nature of their hockey backgrounds.
Ristolainen, a heralded prospect hailing from Turku, Finland, was drafted eighth overall by the Sabres in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. After appearing in 19 games with the big club to start the 2013-14 season, Ristolainen was sent to the Amerks in mid-November to provide some skill and strength along Rochester’s blue line. Since his reassignment from Buffalo, the 19-year-old has 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in 22 games with the Americans.
Bagnall’s story is much different. A native of Oakbank, Man., Bagnall went undrafted by the NHL and began his professional hockey career in the ECHL with Reading in 2007-08. During that season, Bagnall split time with Reading and the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs. He would eventually earn his keep and remain in Manchester until 2010-11, when he parted for the Houston Aeros and served as their captain before signing a two-year, two-way deal with the Sabres this past summer.
Despite their differences in roads traveled, both players share admiration and appreciation for their defensive partner.
“I like to play with ‘Bags’ a lot,” Ristolainen said. “It makes my game easier. He helps me a lot, we talk a lot and we both play pretty simple hockey, so we have looked pretty good so far.”
“He brings the ability for us to control the puck more,” Bagnall said. “My job is to get it to him and let him make those decisions offensively and support him defensively, and he can bring that offensive side, making plays that I wouldn’t necessarily make.”
Bagnall has ensured that while he tries to take all of Rochester’s young players under his wing, he takes special interest in teaching Ristolainen.
“With ‘Risto,’ because he is so young, he has such a tremendous upside; I try to spend more time with him because I don’t think he’s long for this league and I want to see him in the NHL,” Bagnall said. “He might have the hardest shot in the league. He just has to get that consistency in his game where he’s the player he can be every night.”
You can imagine there would be potential communication breakdowns with the inevitable language barriers of professional hockey in North America, but it’s been so far, so good for the Canadian Bagnall and the Finnish Ristolainen.
“‘Bags’ is a big talker,” Ristolainen said. “He talks a lot, and he’s the leader out on the ice. He helps me more out on the ice; some things he sees from my game and on the power play.”
Bagnall agreed with Ristolainen’s sentiment, and according to the Amerks captain, Ristolainen already has a strong grip on the English language — and his willingness to listen has certainly helped his cause.
“We talk about plays every time we come back to the bench, what he saw, what I’ve seen,” Bagnall said. “I try to watch video with him after our games. We’ll watch the following day and just say certain situations what he thought and what I think is the best play if we get into trouble, or if we make a great play.
“I think with guys like him who have such a tremendous upside, it’s huge to reinforce the positives, because if he’s confident, he’s going to make those high-end plays.”
Being a young player himself once, Bagnall can appreciate what it’s like to have a mentor as you try to become a better hockey player at the AHL level. For him, it was current New Jersey Devils defenseman Peter Harrold, with whom Bagnall played with during his first season with Manchester.
“My first year I played with Peter Harrold probably the second half of the season, and he was that offensive guy and I was the guy who stayed back and my job was just to give him the puck,” Bagnall said. “Offensive players tend to see it differently, like how to draw players in, how to buy a little bit more time for your teammates, whereas a defensive player, so many times you’re just thinking, ‘I just have to move this puck up as quick as I can,’ rather than try and draw that forward to you so that the next player has time with it.”
Once again positioned with a gifted defenseman in Ristolainen, Bagnall’s role is to not only play well on the ice, but assist his partner in doing the same any way he can.
“My job is to make sure he plays within himself,” Bagnall said. “He has so much high-end skill that he might be able to make plays that I definitely can’t make, but a lot of players in this league can’t make. It’s just choosing when to make those plays and playing the percentages.”
How long the offensive first-round draft pick and the undrafted stay-at-home security guard continue to play together remains to be seen. For now, they lace up the skates as the Amerks winning combination on defense, despite being Rochester’s own personal odd couple.