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If the Sabres bring Ristolainen back they need to drastically change his role

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Rasmus Ristolainen has been in some trade rumors, but if he’s back the Sabres need accept it’s time to change his role

NHL: Dallas Stars at Buffalo Sabres Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Rasmus Ristolainen continues to be one of the hottest topics surrounding the Buffalo Sabres. There are those that feel he should be traded at all costs and some that feel he can be a successful defenseman in the right role. The balance is probably somewhere in the middle.

Going into the offseason there was probably a better than 50 percent chance that Jason Botterill would look to move the Finnish defender. There were rumors of a potential deal at the deadline that would be revisited after the season.

After the news of Zach Bogosian getting another hip surgery a few weeks ago, there was speculation if the Sabres would change their approach with Ristolainen. According to Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet, it appears it may have. Here is an excerpt from his recent ‘31 Thoughts’ piece:

Zach Bogosian’s hip surgery could change the Sabres’ plans for Rasmus Ristolainen. We’ve mentioned on the 31 Thoughts podcast rumblings that Buffalo and Tampa Bay seriously considered a Ristolainen deal and planned on revisiting it. But another team that poked around him thinks GM Jason Botterill is asking candidates how they can work with Ristolainen and improve his game. I’m a big believer in that. Always easier to solve your issues instead of trading them — if you can.”

It’s debatable if Bogosian should change anything with the Sabres plans with Ristolainen and most of what Friedman wrote feels more like speculation than fact. Regardless, let’s entertain the idea that the 24-year-old defender is back next season.

We all know his 5 on 5 impacts and how they don’t paint a nice picture of Ristolainen’s play, especially with the minutes he’s seen with the Sabres. If he’s going to be back next season, Botterill is doing the right thing in asking potential head coaches what they would do with him. If the answer is “play him top pair minutes” the interview should immediately end.

Minutes Reduction

This organization has allowed Ristolainen to play in a role that clearly hasn’t fit his ability for too long. The primary reason was that they didn’t have better options, but that isn’t the case any longer. They have Rasmus Dahlin and Brandon Montour on the roster now. Both should step right into top four roles next season with Dahlin taking over as the top defenseman on the team.

There’s no excuse to continue to play Ristolainen at an average of at least 25 minutes a night like they have the past three years. If he’s going to be on the roster they need to start treating him as a defenseman that needs to play sheltered minutes. It’s not ideal to pay a defenseman an annual average value of $5.4 million in that role, but that’s where they are right now if he returns.

I spent some time looking at game data from Evolving Hockey over the past two seasons and you can see the improvement in Ristolainen’s numbers with the less ice time he’s burdened with. On the chart below, I broke his expected goals for and against numbers at even strength into three different categories based on the ice time over the past two seasons.

You’ll see that his xGA per 60 when he plays over 18 minutes at even strength are relatively poor. His xGF per 60 metrics are ok, but they don’t outweigh the negative impact defensively. When he plays less than 18 minutes, his xGA/60 drop significantly, as do his xGF/60, but we’ll touch on that part shortly.

The next chart here you’ll see a similar situation occurring in relation to his Corsi numbers.

Usage and Deployment

So, it’s not difficult to see that reducing his minutes below 18 minutes at even strength will improve his defensive impact. As I mentioned, it may reduce his offensive impact as well. At 5 on 5, Ristolainen isn’t the best offensive player anyways. Except for this past season, throughout his career, most of his points come on the power play. That’s the one area of his game that is excellent.

The Sabres can offset the reduction of offensive output at 5 on 5 by continuing to give him time on the power play. If they can add another offensive threat or two in the offseason, it shouldn’t be hard to put together two strong power play units.

While we’re on the topic of special teams, Ristolainen needs to stop getting heavy minutes on the penalty kill. He’s just not that good at it. Don’t waste minutes putting him in a situation in which he’ll struggle.

His goals against per 60 while shorthanded were the worst on the team among defensemen by a lot (.328) and xGA/60 was only behind Montour this season. In the 2017-18 season, his GA/60 was second worst among defensemen on the team (.459) and xGA/60 was third worst while shorthanded according to Evolving Hockey.

He’s not so bad to the point where he should never be on the penalty kill, but he shouldn’t be a primary option. They should treat Ristolainen like they did Dahlin on the penalty kill this season, moving forward.

Going back to even strength play, it would be in the Sabres best interest to shelter the former first-round pick with offensive-zone starts. He doesn’t excel at getting the puck out of his own end of the ice and can find himself in trouble positionally if he gets stuck in that end for an extended period. Continually deploying him in more defensive situations than offensive is counterproductive.

The chart below shows the drastic difference in expected goals per 60 metrics when his zone-start rates are above and below 50 percent. Below 50 percent means he’s seeing primarily defensive-zone starts and above 50 percent shifts to the offensive side of the ice.

Pilut

So far we’ve established that it’s best for Ristolainen to play around 16 to 18 minutes at 5 on 5, in sheltered offensive-zone starts, and continuing to get time on the power play. For the Sabres to maximize their impact with Ristolainen in that type of role, he should play with Lawrence Pilut as his defense partner.

Pilut just seems to have the ability to succeed on the left side with Ristolainen. He’s a solid puck-mover that can help Ristolainen defensively, as well as have an impact in shot generation offensively.

The duo thrived together in the over 200 minutes they played as a pair at 5 on 5. Why Phil Housley seemingly refused to keep them together will forever escape me. Ristolainen’s numbers are improved in xG measurements and goal differential at 5 on 5 when he’s on the ice with the Swedish defender.

His Corsi percentage, scoring chances percentage, and high-danger Corsi percentage are all considerably improved with Pilut according to Natural Stat Trick.

They could be a solid second or third pair for the Sabres next season. I’m of the philosophy that teams should rely on a first pair to play the hard minutes. Then use their second and third pairs in almost a 50/50 split of ice-time based on situational needs and matchups. It allows your blue line to stay fresh throughout the season and not put too much stress on any one pair.

The data backs up a lot of assumptions I had going into this research. If the Sabres plan to bring Ristolainen back, they need to accept that it’s time he becomes a sheltered defender that has his minutes reduced from around 25 minutes a night to about 19 minutes a night in all situations. No matter who the coach is it’s unlikely they’ll be able to improve Ristolainen’s hockey IQ and ability to make break out passes consistently.

I think if the Sabres take this approach I’m suggesting it gives Ristolainen the best chance to succeed and can also help to create a larger trade market for him if the Sabres want to explore moving him next summer.

Special shoutout to Evolving Hockey and Natural Stat Trick for the data that was used throughout this article