After the acquisition of Henri Jokiharju the focus of the Buffalo Sabres offseason now almost entirely shifts to the Sabres log jam on defense, particularly the right side. Jokiharju is another right-shot defenseman to go along with Colin Miller, Brandon Montour, Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian, Casey Nelson and if you want it, Will Borgen.
The left side of the Sabres blue line is packed as well, but let’s stop tip-toeing around the fact that Ristolainen is the focus now. Whether you’re a fan or not of the idea of trading him at this point is irrelevant for this discussion.
They have too many NHL defensemen on the right side and he is the one most likely to be moved with his perceived value around the league. If not for the injury, perhaps Bogosian could be in the conversation, but it’s unlikely a team will have interest in him.
Jason Botterill has done well so far this summer, but he still needs to add one more forward to the top six of his roster to complete the job and that’s where using Ristolainen as a trade chip comes into play.
The next step is trying to find some suitors for the 24-year-old defender. At this point, the options appear to be limited around the league to a small handful of teams where a trade makes sense for both sides.
Most of the recent chatter regarding a Ristolainen deal has centered around the Winnipeg Jets. They have some cap issues coming up with new contracts due to Andrew Copp, Neal Pionk, Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor this summer.
According to Cap Friendly, the Jets currently have $22.9 million in cap space with the four aforementioned players left to sign. If we use Evolving Hockey’s contract projections we can get an idea of roughly how much space they’ll have left after signing all four players. So, let’s say they sign for the following cap hits:
- Laine: $7 million
- Connor: $7 million
- Pionk: $2.93 million
- Copp: $2.17 million
That would leave the Jets with roughly $3.8 million in cap space with those contracts added in. It’s possible Laine or Connor could come in higher, while at the same time the other two contracts could come in at a lower cap hit. The Jets can make that cap space work this season, but the catch is their issues don’t go away next summer.
They’ll need to hand a new deal out to defenseman Josh Morrissey and forward Jack Roslovic in the summer of 2020. They’ll only have three contracts coming off their books next summer in Dmitry Kulikov, Nathan Beaulieu, and Laurent Brossoit. If the cap jumps up another 2.5% to $83.5 million for the 2020-21 season and those three contracts come off, the Jets will have roughly $12.4 million in cap space.
Blue Line Help Wanted
That doesn’t leave Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff a lot of room to improve his roster on a team that believes that can win now. Last season the Jets were one of the worst expected goal differential teams in the league. They had the 10th worst xG differential per 60 in the league last season according to Evolving Hockey.
This summer they lost three players off their blue line in Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot. An argument could be made that they won’t see much of a decline with the losses of Myers and Chiarot, nonetheless, they need some help on defense.
At this moment they only have Dustin Byfuglien, Sami Niku, Tucker Poolman and Neal Pionk on the right side. Not a lot of depth behind Byfuglien, especially if you’re not a believer in Pionk. Ristolainen would give them a second defenseman behind Byfuglien on the right that has experience in a top-four role. It feels like a logical fit for the Jets needs and they have a few forwards they can unload, which fits the Sabres desires as well. The tricky part will be making the money work both sides with Risotlainen’s $5.4 million cap hit.
It’s unlikely the Jets would be willing to part with Connor or Laine. So, for that reason, I’ll skip over those two to save some time. Also, the discussion on why Laine would be a bad idea needs its own write-up.
The player at the top of everyone’s wish list appears to be left winger Nikolaj Ehlers. This past season the 23-year-old had a down year scoring 21 goals and 37 points in 62 games. He had an extended scoring drought in the second half of the season and still hasn’t scored a goal in 21 playoff games. The two years prior he scored at least 25 goals and 60 points, so the down year seems like an outlier.
Ehlers is a quick skating winger with a lot of skill. Looking at Micah McCurdy’s isolated impact chart below you can see how he drives offense, reduces chances against defensively, has a good shot, and a solid penalty differential. He was also the Jets best player last season in expected goals per 60 at 5 on 5 during the 2018-19 season, according to Moneypuck.
Dumping off his $6 million cap hit for the next six years does make sense if they want to use him as a piece to flip their depth. Ehlers would be a nice addition to the wing to play with Casey Mittelstadt, but it would likely require the Sabres to add to the trade beyond Ristolainen to acquire him.
Another player that could be of interest to the Sabres is Jack Roslovic. The 22-year-old forward was selected with the first-round pick the Jets acquired from the Sabres in the Evander Kane trade. He played his first full season in the NHL this past year scoring seven goals and 24 points in 77 games. He was used in a third line role playing primarily with Mathieu Perreault and Bryan Little according to Evolving Hockey.
There’s a lot of potential for Roslovic if he’s given a bigger role on a new team in the right situation. He’s another one of those players that have strong primary shot contribution ratings. He was one of the best players on the Jets last season in creating offensive with his transition game and PSC/60 metrics.
Roslovic played right wing last season which is still an area of need for the Sabres and he was drafted out of the US National Development Program as a center. He’s not a flashy name like Ehlers but would be a nice addition to the roster.
If Roslovic is part of the package going back to the Sabres in a potential trade, they’ll need to take another player that has a decent cap hit to create space for the Jets to take on Ristolainen. The most obvious choice appears to be winger Mathieu Perreault.
The 31-year-old veteran has two years remaining on his deal and it carries a $4.125 million cap hit. He’s not your normal “cap dump” that is a net negative. Perreault would be a nice bottom-six improvement that can help the team with his defensive impacts and provide secondary scoring as well. He’s also a player that can help improve the Sabres second power-play unit.
The one thing to note with Perreault is that he carries a modified no-trade clause. He can submit a list of five teams that he does not want to be traded to.
A few other players the Sabres could inquire about are strong bottom six players like Andrew Copp and Adam Lowry. I’ve written in the past about Copp and his on-ice impacts in the role he plays. Lowry follows that similar mold but is two years older (26) than Copp. Again, this wouldn’t be the names that will catch people’s attention, but they’d be great upgrades to the lineup.
As of now, the Jets and Sabres look like ideal trade partners. Winnipeg was rumored to have some interest in Jake Gardiner, so perhaps that could be holding up a move from happening at this point.
The writing appears to be on the wall for Ristolainen to be dealt this summer. We’ll see what Botterill has planned to clear up the log jam on his roster.