Welcome to the Buffalo Sabres, son. Smile pretty while you’ve still got you’re teeth, and get ready to put aside your scoring abilities. We’ll need a defense-first mentality and hits. Lots and lots of hits.
While former Gophers standout Erik Rasmussen might not have been welcomed to the National Hockey League in those exact words, the same Rasmussen who averaged one point per game in college is quickly transitioning into a power forward with a league-wide reputation for physical play and an ability to dole out hard hits.
“It’s very different,” the 6-foot 2-inch, 205-pound Rasmussen said of his adapted role. “You grow up your entire life being counted on to score points, and when you get to another level and you’re not on one of the top two scoring lines — you become a role player … almost.”
His agent Brian Lawton said Rasmussen’s contributions night in and night out might not be the type of which headlines are made, but that he is fitting the Sabres defense-oriented system very well.
“Erik has been asked in no capacity whatsoever to provide offense,” Lawton said. “The stat you really need to look at is the amount of minutes he’s played. That’s an indication that he is doing his job on the ice and the coaching staff is taking notice.”
Another stat worth noting is the 88 total hits Rasmussen racked up in the Sabres playoff run to the Stanley Cup Finals this season. That amount was good for third among all NHL playoff participants, and made him the only forward in the top five.
Rasmussen’s transition from turning the goal light red to making opposing forwards black and blue has not been overnight, however.
“From the time Erik was 10, he saw the ice good, but he liked the physical part of the game,” said Don Rasmussen, Erik’s father.
During his freshman year on the Gophers, Rasmussen earned WCHA All-Rookie Team honors with impressive numbers of 16 goals and 32 assists. Aside from Rasmussen’s offensive numbers, former Gophers coach Doug Woog also saw the physical part of the forward’s game beginning to emerge.
“His freshman year, he was an impact player for us,” Woog said. “Banging guys, hitting guys. He made (teammate Brian) Bonin’s life a lot better. You always have a limited number of guys that can skate and get around and still be physical, and he has all those attributes.”
Next year will be Rasmussen’s third in the NHL, and though he is playing solid hockey with a bona fide championship contender in Buffalo, he has not forgotten just how difficult the professional transition was.
“I was just looking forward to being a part of it all when I first came into the league,” Rasmussen said. “I was so gun shy, I didn’t really go out there and take control of my situation. I thought everything was going to be given to me, but it sure wasn’t. I learned you really have to battle.
“I don’t expect to be a superstar, but I expect to do well.”
Rasmussen has played himself into a key contributing role, finding that perhaps enough hits can be just as important as a few goals, and if anybody is gun shy now, it’s opposing players who have been drilled by No. 9 and left to ask themselves,~ “Where did that come from?”
The answer, Rasmussen might say: It’s always been there.