Buffalo Sabres forward Rasmus Asplund has taken advantage of the opportunity he's been recently given in the lineup.
The 23-year-old came back from an upper-body injury last Thursday against the New York Rangers and has now found himself playing on Buffalo's top line just three games back with Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson.
In his three games played, Asplund has managed to score a pair of goals, while using his speed and physical presence to push his tempo of play to the next level. That was on full display on Tuesday night in New Jersey when he shined on a line with Mittelstadt and Thompson, playing 14:07 of total ice-time, and scoring Buffalo's first goal of the game in the first period.
So far through 10 games this season, Asplund has four goals, which puts him in a tie for sixth on the team's goal scoring list.
This 2020-21 season has been a trying one for many players, but Asplund has been shuffled up and down the roster quite often. He started the season as part of the taxi squad in Buffalo before getting some playing time in Rochester with the Americans, and then being back up with the Sabres and going in-and-out of the lineup.
Despite all that, Asplund is trying to just enjoy his time this season in the NHL and take in as much as he can with the Sabres.
"I'm trying to enjoy every game and every shift I get here," Asplund said following Wednesday's practice at KeyBank Center. "We're playing in the best league in the world. It's something you've been working on your whole life and really tried to reach. I'm trying to have fun. That's the key thing for me."
The road to the NHL for Asplund has been a long one since being drafted in the second round (33rd overall) in the 2016 NHL Draft. He stayed in Sweden to play in the Swedish Hockey League through the 2017-18 season before making the jump to North America. After a successful rookie campaign in the American Hockey League with 41 points (10+31) in 75 games, Asplund finally got his shot in the NHL just last season, appearing in 29 games with a goal and two assists for three points.
Heading into this season, Asplund started his play back home in Sweden in the country's Tier-II professional league, HockeyAllsvenskan. He produced well in his time with Västerås IK, scoring four goals and adding five assists for nine points in 14 games. That allowed him to stay in playing shape until the time came for him to return to Buffalo to prepare for training camp starting in early January.
While Asplund stayed active as the Sabres patiently awaited to play again following the COVID-19 break and the NHL's Return to Play plan, he also spent time working on his mental game to better prepare himself for his third season in North America.
"I thought last year I started my first few games really good, but then I got really tight mentally. That's the thing I've really been trying to work on and really be able to reset after every game and get ready mentally to be at my 100% every night," Asplund explained. "It's a tough league to play in, and with this year it's even tougher. I'm trying to get my mental game to where it has to be to stick around in the NHL."
Going back to Tuesday's game, the line of Asplund-Mittelstadt-Thompson was clearly Buffalo's best line, generating six of Buffalo's 13 scoring chances, and also a good amount of offensive zone time. On Asplund's goal in the first, the young Swede forced a turnover at the New Jersey blue line, which he quickly turned into a 2-on-1 rush with Mittelstadt before he buried the puck on a beautiful one-time feed.
Sabres interim coach Don Granato was very pleased with his line's production on the night, and praised the trio for playing with plenty of confidence, which he has urged his team to do more of since taking over head coaching duties on March 17.
Granato sees that confidence growing in Asplund's game, and knows that he put in a lot of hard work to get to where he is heading into the home stretch of the season.
"I've watched him, watched him last year, and he's made himself a better hockey player," Granato said. "He played a handful of games for us last year, it was almost an apprenticeship. He internalized it, he kind of figured out what his strengths and weaknesses were, he did a great job in the offseason and came back this year better as a player and better in the form of physical. And then just targeting - just another of leadership and determination within him, and that's what you see now. He was finding and searching his way around the NHL a year ago, and now he's targeting what to do and what he can do within a shift or a game, and that's where you see the results now. He's very result oriented. He knows what's wanted from the coach, the system he plays, and within the game itself. He's ready for that next opportunity, and being ready to seize it is the biggest difference as he's built himself up."
Asplund did not start Tuesday night's game playing with Mittelstadt and Thompson, but their immediate chemistry on the ice led to Granato turning to that combination more times than not. He says that having some past experience playing together in Rochester helped the three pay early dividends in Tuesday's win.
"We've been playing together in [Rochester], so I think we know each other pretty well," Asplund said. "I know what type of hockey we want to play together. They're such good guys, it's easy to talk to them and try to work out certain things that we need to work on. It was a lot of fun last night to play with them, and hopefully we can keep building on what we did yesterday."
Asplund was part of an optional skate for the Sabres on Wednesday, with a number of players also electing to take part in on-ice activities. Some of the other players included Thompson, Rasmus Dahlin, Jeff Skinner, Kyle Okposo, Henri Jokiharju, Victor Olofsson, Jacob Bryson, Arttu Ruotsalainen and all three goaltenders - Linus Ullmark, Dustin Tokarski and Michael Houser.
Quote of the Day:
"When you lose that many games in a row, there has to be a point where everyone's saying, 'F--- it. We've got to start playing better and start winning games.' Lately it's been better, and there's still a lot of games left and still a lot of room for improvement." - Rasmus Ristolainen
The Sabres will hold a morning skate on Thursday, where Granato should give a more concrete update on the lineup for the evening's game against the Devils.