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The Ristolainen top pair experiment is over

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It’s time for the Sabres to make a long overdue change in Rasmus Ristolainen’s usage

NHL: Preseason-Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

It’s becoming a late summer annual tradition in Buffalo. We hear about and discuss how the Buffalo Sabres are going to do a better job limiting the minutes of defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. Multiple coaches and general managers have indicated this is their plan heading into the season.

We’re still waiting for that scenario to unfold.

This season is no different. Through 15 games Ristolainen is averaging 25:10 time on ice per game played. To be fair, that is down from 26:30 in the 2017-18 season and 26:28 in the 2016-17 season, but not anywhere close to where it should be.

Also, like previous seasons, the Finnish defender is leaving a lot to be desired in his game, especially at even strength. Offensively we’re not seeing the improvement or impact that is expected. He’ll show flashes that have you wanting more, but it never comes consistently. To this point in the season, he only has one point at even strength.

Defensively, the lapses and mistakes are continuing as well. Falling asleep on coverage (see GIF below), bad outlet passes and questionable decisions that are putting his team in a bad position.

His possession numbers continue to be bad as well. He has a Corsi of 45.9 so far this season at even strength with a career-worst -6.6 rel Corsi. Which is worse than his 48.5 last year and 44.1 two years ago.

When is it time to make a change?

For years now, fans have fought off the advanced stats folks who hammer on Ristolainen for not being very good. There has been a laundry list of excuses made for him to speak to the poor numbers, including his defensive partners throughout his career and his usage.

The talent around the 24-year-old has improved on the blue line from last season. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say he’s playing with the best defense group he’s had in his time with the Sabres. Yet, his numbers haven’t improved.

The constant here over the years is the usage and ice time he’s been given. That’s where your problem is.

While Ristolainen holds responsibility for his play, how he’s being used is out of his control. It’s safe to say that he’s not a number one defenseman in this league and probably not even a top pair defender. Night in and night out his coach runs him out there as if he is.

Accept It

It must stop. The organization, Jason Botterill, and Phil Housley all need to accept that he’s never going to be that player. He can be a useful power play defenseman, that can play in a second pair role for your team. I’m not by any means indicating here that Ristolainen is a bad player. He’s not, he’s just severely misused.

He can no longer play five minutes more a night than the next closest defender (Marco Scandella 20:09 TOI/GP). It’s not fair to rely on him to play against the other team’s top players every single game.

It also is time for this staff to stop hiding from the fact that the 18-year-old rookie, Dahlin, is the best defenseman on this roster. The fact that Ristolainen is playing almost exactly seven minutes a night more than Dahlin (18:11 TOI/GP) on average is unacceptable and the numbers tell the story.

Housley can improve his club defensively if he uses the top four defensemen on this roster evenly (McCabe, Ristolainen, Dahlin, and Bogosian). Jake McCabe is having a decent season so far and if Zach Bogosian can stay healthy, you have to be encouraged by his start.

It may allow Ristolainen to play a more offensive game if he doesn’t have to worry about playing the opponents top line. It would also give you an idea if he can be a reliable second pair player moving into the future.

A $5.4 million cap hit for a number three, 24-year-old defender is not restricting by any means in today’s NHL. On the flip side, you could look to move him in the offseason and playing in a proper role could improve his value come next summer.

At the end of the day, this experiment can officially be declared over; it didn’t work. There’s no longer a need to continually bang your head on the wall trying to make it work with the improved talent on the roster this season. The time for a shift in top pair minutes is here and those minutes should belong to Dahlin.