Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen is going through one of the tougher stretches of hockey in his career right now. He’s been removed from the top pair with Marco Scandella and found himself stapled to the bench for large portions of the game against the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday night.
Ristolainen has been a hot topic over the last few seasons. The analytics crowd has been clamoring that the Finnish born defender is overrated based on his advanced stats. The other side of the argument from people who watch the games argue that he’s a much better player than the numbers indicate.
The 23-year-old has been the Sabres best defenseman over the past few years. In fact, he’s been one of only a few legitimate NHL defensemen to occupy the Buffalo blue line. Ristolainen has been paired with players like Josh Gorges, Andre Benoit, Andrej Meszaros and Cody Franson over the past two years entering this season.
This season the partner excuse doesn’t really hold water. Ristolainen has been paired with Scandella for the vast majority of the season. Scandella is the best defensive partner he’s had in his entire career. Yet we’re seeing some of the worst hockey we’ve seen out of the former first-round pick.
So, what gives?
The obvious starting point to try to figure out what’s happening is to point to the ice time. Ristolainen plays in all situations and is the ice team leader on a nightly basis.
We’re on the second head coach now who has stated their goal is to reduce the minutes that Ristolainen plays. Over the last three seasons, the average time on ice has gone up. In 2015-16 he averaged 25:16 per game, that was 10th among all NHL defenders.
The 2016-17 season in Dan Bylsma’s second season the average time on ice per game jumped to 26:28. Ranking Ristolainen fifth among all defenders in the league.
This season under Phil Housley, so far he’s averaging the same ice time as the previous year with 26:26.
Only two players have averaged more ice time this season. Those players are Ryan Suter and Drew Doughty. It’s crazy to see that Ristolainen plays more minutes than defensemen like Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman and Alex Pietrangelo.
The big question is why haven’t two head coaches now been able to figure out a way to limit the minutes of the big Finn? The primary reason is it comes down to the other players on the blue line.
Last season, Dmitry Kulikov was supposed to help take some responsibility off of Ristolainen’s plate. With the injury issues for the Russian defender that never got off the ground.
This season it was on Nathan Beaulieu and Zach Bogosian to help eat some ice time. Bogosian has only played 18 games and is out the remainder of the season. Beaulieu has battled injury issues as well and has not lived up to expectations for the Sabres.
Ristolainen, along with Scandella are the only two that Housley has been able to rely on this season to play the big minutes until recently.
It’s safe to say that he’s a legitimate top-four defenseman in the NHL. He’ proved that at a young age with his production and ability to handle the big minutes.
The book is still out though on if Ristolainen can be a top pair defender.
While he has shown the ability to handle the role, it has not been on a consistent basis. That could be chalked up to him still going through some development, but after this season it’ll be time to do away with the “development” excuse.
When it comes down to it Ristolainen is an important piece and should be moving into the future. General manager Jason Botterill is responsible for getting some other talent around him to take some of the pressure off. It’ll allow him to stay fresh throughout the game and season. Also, allow him to focus a little more on his offensive game, which has slipped this season.
It should be said that Ristolainen is not free of any blame for his recent struggles. He’s had a lack of focus, that has lead to bad execution. We’ve seen uncharacteristic turnovers and blown coverage in the defensive zone. Not to mention poor passing that ended up costing his club a point against the Anaheim Ducks in an overtime loss.
The Sabres would be unwise to move on from their top pick in the 2013 NHL draft unless they get an offer you can’t refuse. The only other young player that shows the potential of being able to handle top-four minutes at the NHL level currently is Brendan Guhle.
Heading into the trade deadline and offseason the priority of fixing the blue line remains near the top of the to-do list. It’s been a task now that hasn’t been satisfied in two years.
If the Sabres can get the pieces around Ristolainen, they may finally get the defender that we’ve been waiting to fully arrive the last few years.