Thanks to a late-season cameo upon the conclusion of his junior season in 2010-11, Rissanen is one of nine players to play at least one Checkers game in each of the club’s four AHL seasons. Now with three full campaigns under his belt, his entry-level contract is expiring and free agency looms.
As a restricted player, the 22-year-old, sixth-round pick in 2009 won’t be able to sign for another NHL organization if the Hurricanes present him with a qualifying offer by the June deadline. However, he could decide to join a European team, something a handful of Checkers typically do each offseason. Oskar Osala, Evgenii Dadonov, Mike Murphy and Justin Krueger are the notable examples.
- Pulled into a sixth-place tie with Riley Nash for most games played in team history (188). Among defensemen, only Michal Jordan has played more.
- Recorded career highs in points (10) and penalty minutes (91). His penalty minute total ranked third on the team and put him into third place in team history
- Ended a 77-game goal drought on Nov. 19
- Scored his first career power-play goal on Jan. 24
The European route tends to be more tempting to those actually from Europe, as it represents the relative comfort of going home compared to the beginning of a new and uncertain adventure. That said, Rissanen, a native of Kuopio, Finland, who played for his hometown club of Kalpa at the junior level, made a significant commitment to his North American future by coming over to join the WHL’s Everett Silvertips as an 18 year old in 2009 and has stayed ever since.
The Checkers, who could lose as many as five defensemen from the roster that finished this season due to contract status (Matt Corrente, Mark Flood and Michal Jordan) or promotion to the NHL (Ryan Murphy), would certainly love to have Rissanen in the fold next season. Prior to a shoulder injury suffered in his only fight of the season on Dec. 7, Rissanen was, according to coach Jeff Daniels, showing considerable progression from previous seasons. An increased level of patience with the puck to go along with his excellent skating and rugged style earned him time on the power play and a career high, yet still modest, total of 10 points. Penalties remained an issue, however, as he ranked third among AHL defensemen with 38 minor infractions at season’s end, while the defensive unit as a whole struggled at times down the stretch.
“I think I improved every year more and more and am getting closer to the NHL,” said Rissanen. “I really enjoyed it here and I think the AHL is a good league for me and my style of game.”
The question Rissanen will be asking himself and Carolina is exactly how close he is to the next level. Of the aforementioned group of nine original Checkers, he’s one of two that the Hurricanes have never recalled (Matthew Pistilli, who resurfaced on a pair of tryout contracts in recent years, is the other). He was hardly alone in a most recent season that saw exactly zero defenseman who started the season in Charlotte play an NHL game, but was clearly further down the pecking order than most when an injury crisis hit Carolina in 2012-13 and big-league debuts were handed to Jordan and Brett Bellemore.
Of defensemen who began that lockout season with the Checkers, Rissanen and Krueger, regular defensive partners for two years, were the only two who did not play an NHL game.
“My goal was to get a taste and a shot at the NHL, like everyone’s dream is, and after two years I didn’t get a chance, so my decision was to take another road,” said Krueger upon signing in Switzerland last May.
Will Rissanen follow in Krueger’s footsteps? Like Jordan, another restricted free agent, he seems willing to wait on the process that begins with Carolina’s attempts to rebuild its own roster, which will in turn determine whether they see him as someone who could contribute in some way next season.
“I have to hear from Carolina what they want to do with me, and we’ll see,” he said.