ROCHESTER – Having played 19 times earlier this season, Buffalo Sabres prospect Arttu Ruotsalainen has a strong advantage over most AHL players, many of whom haven’t experienced any game action for nearly a year.
Ruotsalainen, 23, enjoyed regular duty in his native Finland, morphing into perhaps Liiga’s biggest star. He left his team, Ilves, in December having scored a league-high 16 goals.
Not surprisingly, Ruotsalainen stood out in his North American debut Friday, scoring a power-play goal in the Americans’ 3-2 season-opening loss to the Utica Comets.
New Amerks coach Seth Appert utilized Ruotsalainen in all situations, having him center the top line between captain Steven Fogarty and Brett Murray and also awarding him top power-play and penalty-kill duty.
The 5-foot-8, 181-pound Ruotsalainen scored 8:53 into the third period in Blue Cross Arena, one-timing Rasmus Asplund’s pass in the right circle to narrow it to 3-2.
The goal resembled one of the many Sabres sniper Victor Olofsson has scored over the last year and half. In the waning minutes, Ruotsalainen nearly scored another power-play goal from the circle.
“We liked him a lot,” Appert said on a Zoom call. “I mean, what’s not to like? … I thought he had Gillies beat there to tie the game late. (He played) penalty kill, he blocked shots, he took faceoffs.
“For a 23-year-old rookie in his American League debut to play with that kind of composure, competitiveness and in all situations, that’s what we’ve seen from him every day.”
Ruotsalainen, however, wasn’t totally satisfied with his effort Friday.
“The biggest thing was (the) D-zone game and faceoffs,” he said. “I think I was pretty bad today in the faceoffs.”
Ruotsalainen, an undrafted free agent the Sabres’ old regime signed in 2019, has developed into one of the organization’s top forward prospects.
“There’s a reason he has as many goals … it’s a special release and a special shot but I expected that,” Appert said. “I guess the things that’s been pleasantly surprising is how darn competitive he is.”
Appert said Ruotsalainen showcases the tenacity to complement his skills.
“He’s a fire hydrant,” he said. “He’s just a thick, undersized, competitive forward. That’s what he’s going to need to get to the NHL. He’s going to need to be hard on pucks, he’s going to need to be a forechecking presence, a pest to play against.
“All the best undersized players … have that pest, agitation, in-your-face competitiveness with a little chip on their shoulder, because they’ve been overlooked their whole life, right?”
European players often have trouble adjusting to having less time and space on the smaller North American ice surface. Appert said Ruotsalainen has shown early signs he will adapt.
“He hasn’t struggled with that in practice because of his competitiveness,” he said.
He added: “Right now, he seems to have zero issue with getting on the hunts and really moving his legs to go in and hound the puck.”
Appert, who estimated Ruotsalainen played around 25 minutes Friday, said the Finn has been a quick learner.
“You tell him something once and it’s done,” he said.
Appert hopes he’s done using odd lineups. The Amerks dressed 10 forwards and seven defensemen because so many players up front were unavailable.
Jack Quinn, the eighth overall pick year, must quarantine because he was in Buffalo when the Sabres began dealing COVID-19 problems. Remi Elie is still quarantining after recently signing. Dawson DiPietro has been dealing with an undisclosed injury. A slew of players are also on the Sabres’ taxi squad.
The small group of forwards played a part in Appert starting veteran netminder Dustin Tokarski, 31, over top Sabres goalie prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
“Having a vet back there and having his experience, we talked about trying to slow the game down a little bit, maybe take a whistle, fix the pads – things that a 30-some-year-old veteran can handle, because he’s seen everything,” Appert said of Tokarski.
Still, Appert sounded like Tokarski outplayed Luukkonen, 21, during training camp.
“You always want to feel in your players that it has to be earned, right?” he said. “Nothing is given, everything’s earned. UPL, he’s earning it every day with how he works.”
Winger Patrick McGrath scored the Amerks’ other goal.
Buffalo native Patrick Polino, a winger the Amerks signed earlier this week, made his pro debut. Polino, 25, played for Appert at RPI.