Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen has been a hot topic for a few years now. The analytics community will tell you that he’s an overrated defender and others will tell you he’s not fully appreciated for what he does for his hockey club.
There’s no denying that he’s played a lot of minutes for the Sabres over the last few seasons and hasn’t had the best talent around him while doing so. At the same time that doesn’t excuse away some of the deficiencies that the Finnish defender has in his game.
The former first-round pick is in his sixth NHL season and at this point, it’s safe to assume this is the player he’s going to be moving forward. At 24-years-old there’s not a lot of development left.
Ristolainen is a fascinating player to break down and evaluate. He makes some really good plays from time to time that show that elite level talent, but those moments are a rarity in his overall game.
We know that he can produce points at a consistent level. He’s on a pace to set a career high of 51 points this season and has been at least a 40 point player over the last three years.
The important part to note here is how power plays points are a big part of Ristolainen’s production. For his career, 48 percent of the points have come with the man advantage. Now that he is being replaced on the top unit by the new future on the blue line, Rasmus Dahlin, you have to wonder if we could see a dip in overall production moving forward.
Ristolainen also has that physical presence on the blue line that the Sabres lack for the most part. Although, it’s difficult to measure how much of an impact that is in today’s game. You also can’t take away how he’s been able to consistently play roughly 25 minutes a night for the Sabres and miss very little time due to injury while doing so.
At this point his career it’s probably a safe bet to say that he’s not going to be that top pair defender that was hoped for. He’s likely a good second pair defenseman on a deep team that doesn’t need him to play 25 minutes a night. In a more limited role, there’s probably an avenue for long-term success in the NHL for Ristolainen.
The issue in Buffalo is we’ve seen this movie of him playing lion share of minutes repeatedly. It’s time for a change not only for the Sabres but perhaps for Ristolainen as well. Having a player used in the way he is that makes such a negative impact in the numbers is one of the many reasons why this team continues to spin their tires.
Below you’ll see a chart from Sean Tierney that begins to lay out the poor on-ice impact with how he’s one of the worst defensemen on the roster in terms of expected goal differential.
Over the last two seasons, he’s been a negative or at replacement level in goals above replacement. In fact, since the 2015-16 season he has -0.2 GAR at even strength, which is a big problem for a play that plays as much as he does.
The charts below from Evolving Hockey will show you how the big defender makes his positive impact on the team on the power play. However, at 5 on 5 where the game is played most of the time he’s a liability.
Focusing on this season alone, according to Natural Stat Trick, he’s a minus in goals for percentage at 5 on 5 (45.56%), scoring chance for percentage (47.18%), and high-danger chances for percentage (49.87%). Again, a problem for a player who is on the ice as much as he is.
Overall as the team around him is supposed to be improving, he’s trending in the wrong direction in goals and wins above replacement over the last few years. Now, maybe the time to cut bait before the trend enters into a territory where he loses value around the league.
At the end of all of this, the most concerning part of his game that has failed to develop are his puck distribution skills out of the defensive zone. In today’s NHL, the offense is created off of breakouts and outlet passes from defensemen to begin the rush up the ice. Ristolainen continues to struggle and be one of the worst defensemen on the team with zone exits
Based on the games Corey Sznajder tracked this season, Ristolainen has the highest percentage of failed zone exits at 30 percent and the second-lowest percentage of exits with possession (25%). Looking back to last season a similar situation unfolded. He was sixth among 13 defenders in exit failure rate (20.4%) and ninth in exits with possession.
The numbers are even worse when I looked at his ability to prevent zone entries from the opponent. He’s the second-worst at breaking up entries this season (6.6%) and was the worst defenseman on the roster last season at it (4.8%). Spinning off of that, he’s been near the top at the most shots allowed off of zone entries.
What this means is that other clubs that utilize this type of data can come to the conclusion that while Ristolainen is on the ice, his side is the easiest to gain access to the offensive zone on the rush.
The entire point I’m trying to lay out here is while Ristolainen has some areas in his game that help the Sabres. He primarily has a negative impact on his team at 5 on 5 and the positives do not outweigh them.
I want to be clear that I’m not saying that Ristolainen cannot be a good top four defender. He has that potential in the right situation, but the numbers back up that it may be a good time for a change of scenery in Buffalo.
All of this information should paint a picture that they shouldn’t be afraid of making that move if it presents itself. I wouldn’t advocate that they go out and openly look to move him off the roster at any cost. If he is traded, another move will have to be made in lock-step to bring in a right-handed defender to replace him. Only Zach Bogosian and Casey Nelson are the other right-shot defensemen under contract next season.
The Finnish blueliner may be one of the Sabres biggest trade chips going into the offseason and if there’s a hockey trade to be made, it may be best for both sides to go through with it.