The video clips on social media have Buffalo Sabres fans clamoring for Arttu Ruotsalainen’s arrival in North America.
A 5-foot-8 center on loan with the Finnish team Ilves, Ruotsalainen entered Monday leading Liiga in goals (9) and tied for the lead in points (15), while averaging 20:59 of ice time per game and ranking first among all league forwards in total faceoffs (301).
Yet, the most notable sign of growth for the 23-year-old doesn’t always appear on Ilves’ highlight videos. Ruotsalainen has added speed and power to his skating stride, which was once a weakness that prevented him from being drafted in the NHL and contributed to his short stay at Sabres training camp last year.
The marked improvement has helped Ruotsalainen evolve into a more complete player, and should strengthen his bid to make a Sabres roster that’s suddenly crowded at forward.
“He’s faster, he’s quicker,” said Ilves Sports Director Timo Koskela. “He can push the pace more, especially in the neutral zone, than he was a year and a half ago. I think Arttu has understood that for his size of player, it’s really important that his skating improves, and it has. He has a second gear now. … Now he’s more dynamic, and that’s one of the keys for his success.”
This isn’t a sudden leap in development for Ruotsalainen, as illustrated by his gradual improvement the past three seasons with Ilves:
2017-18: 60 games, 9 goals, 11 assists, 20 points. (.333 points per game)
2018-19: 59 games, 21 goals, 21 assists, 42 points (.712 points per game). Seven points, including two goals, in seven playoff games.
2019-20: 44 games, 15 goals, 28 assists, 43 points (.977 points per game).
Ruotsalainen is beginning to realize the potential he showed during a prolific junior career that included 43 goals with 62 assists for 105 points in 112 games at the Under-20 level in Finland. Concerns about size and speed followed Ruotsalainen until his breakout season in 2018-19.
“He’s been progressing and developing over the last three years,” said Jokke Nevalainen, head of European scouting for DobberProspects.com. “I wouldn’t say it’s been taking a big jump or anything like that, but he hasn’t stagnated at all. It’s continued progress and that’s a positive sign that he continues to get better in all areas of the game. … He’s becoming a well-rounded player and with that comes more offense and more responsibility in all situations.”
Even at an early age, Ruotsalainen had outstanding instincts and puck skills, earning him a spot on junior national teams and, eventually, a promotion to Liiga at 17. However, he was overmatched playing against older, stronger opposition in Finland’s top professional league.
Ruotsalainen had only six goals with five assists in 85 games with his former club, Assat, before he joined Ilves. He took advantage of a bigger role with the latter, leading the team in goals and points in 2018-19, while ranking first among all Liiga forwards in average ice time per game.
The Sabres targeted Ruotsalainen as a free agent, given his age and the pace with which he played, and signed him to a three-year contract in May 2019. Former assistant general manager Randy Sexton described Ruotsalainen as a potential future piece of the team’s core.
Ruotsalainen then showed flashes of brilliance during his first Prospects Challenge and training camp last fall. The lack of foot speed, though, was evident at times.
Though Ruotsalainen was assigned to Ilves – his contract prevented him from playing in Rochester last season – he left Buffalo having a better understanding of what he needed to improve to succeed in North America.
“Arttu understands what he needs to do to play in the NHL someday,” Koskela said. “He’s a really well-rounded player and finds a way to impact the game in different ways. When we need him to drive to the net, he has the ability to do it. He’s good on the power play and he’s shot a lot of pucks over the past year and a half to improve his shot. Now he’s scoring more quick-release goals than ever before.”
Skating alone won’t help Ruotsalainen carve out a niche in the NHL or AHL. He also needs to play responsibly without the puck and prove strength won’t be an issue. Despite his size, Ruotsalainen is lauded by scouts for his willingness to battle for the puck in difficult areas in front of the net or along the boards.
There are no signs of “fear,” according to Nevalainen. Ruotsalainen has also improved his lower-body strength to gain or maintain possession of the puck, allowing him to push the pace and create time and space in the offensive zone. Though Ruotsalainen was not signed by the new Sabres regime, he has already made a strong impression on the hockey operations department, which is using video and analytics to track prospects overseas.
“He’s a player that I think everybody can agree he has the puck a lot and he has the puck in good areas,” said Matt Ellis, the Sabres’ director of player development. “You don’t have the puck a lot without great anticipatory skills, being able to read, being able to understand patterns on the ice and being able to understand quiet areas. … When I look at his stature and his body type, he’s able to protect pucks well coming off the wall. That’s something that’s one of his main assets, where he’s able to get dangerous quickly and make a lot of small-area plays coming off the wall. That shows up in how he’s been able to create and drive offense this season, which for me has been impressive to watch.”
To make the Sabres, Ruotsalainen also will need to overcome the transition to the smaller ice surface and a possible switch to left wing because his size might create challenges when playing center in the NHL. The team’s forward group also appears to be set following the acquisitions of Taylor Hall and Cody Eakin, and the expected promotions of Dylan Cozens and Tage Thompson.
“The best players in the world all play in the National Hockey League,” Koskela said. “It’s by far the best league in the world. The D are stronger. It’s never going to be easy. But overall, the way he has worked, the way he has played, he has earned his chance to make the (Sabres). Time will tell, but he’s still young and he needs experience. He’s pushed his game to the limit where he’s not far … It won’t be easy for his coaches (in Buffalo) though if he keeps playing that way.”