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The Sabres may need to rethink their approach with Ristolainen

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Options are running out for Jason Botterill in regards to Rasmus Ristolainen

Pittsburgh Penguins v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

The news around Rasmus Ristolainen has been quiet the last few weeks, but it picked up again over the weekend due to a piece from MTV Sports out of Finland. In the interview, the Sabres defender stated how he hasn’t enjoyed playing hockey in the Buffalo the past few seasons.

This sentiment lines up with the belief that started at the end of last season; Ristolainen would likely prefer to play elsewhere moving forward.

On the other side of the situation, the Sabres also seem like they’d prefer to find a trade involving the 24-year-old defenseman. His name has been in the rumor mill since the trade deadline in February, but Jason Botterill has yet to find a deal to pull the trigger on.

This situation is starting to become an issue with training camp a little more than a month away. The player and the team appear to want to move on, yet the desired value doesn’t seem to be out there in the trade market.

That leaves the Sabres with two options. They can wait it out and if Botterill doesn’t get what he believes is far value then he brings Ristolainen back. The other option is to make a trade in which they receive a lower return than what he’s been seeking to this point.

So, let’s review the two scenarios and see which would make more sense.

Bring Him Back

As we go through August, every day that passes, the likelihood of Ristolainen returning to the Sabres to start next season increases. While it may not be an ideal scenario for both parties, they’ll have to make it work.

The Sabres will be hoping that new head coach Ralph Krueger can do some things to correct the fundamental issues in the defender’s game. While it’s possible that can happen, we’ve heard this before. It didn’t work with Dan Byslma and didn’t work with Phil Housley.

Over the last four years, Ristolainen has played top pair minutes for the Sabres. There has always been the talk of reducing his minutes to take some of the pressure off, but that hasn’t happened. Full disclosure, his time on ice at even strength have reduced over the last three years. However, that reduction has been minimal.

He peaked at over 19 and a half minutes in the 2016-17 season and dipped to just under 19 minutes last year. A realistic reduction would have him getting about 15 to 16 minutes at even strength and some special teams work to get his total average time on ice around 18 to 19 minutes a night. A far cry from the 24 minutes a night he averaged last season.

Since Botterill has built up the blue line around Ristolainen this summer, the Sabres could hope to reduce his minutes and play him in a more sheltered role. That, in theory, could result in him having better results and increasing his trade value. While that idea could work, there are a lot of holes you can punch into that plan.

First and foremost, if his minutes are reduced at 5 on 5 and on the power play, it’s likely his overall point production will go down. Last season, Housley started to reduce the playing time of Ristolainen starting in January at 5 on 5 and the power play. Rasmus Dahlin began to take a bigger role on the first power play unit, which is the area Ristolainen has picked up most of the points (besides last season) throughout his career.

I reviewed some data from Evolving Hockey to see if I could catch a trend in production and reduction of minutes through last season. I kept April out of the data set because it was a small sample size and was skewing the data. Again, in the purposes of full disclosure, Ristolainen’s numbers were pretty good during those three games in April. Primarily due to the big win over the Detroit Red Wings in the season finale.

The chart above gives us a look at Ristolainen’s total average TOI month over month on top of his points per 60 minutes. You’ll notice that as his playing time was reduced, that his point production went down as well. This isn’t a ground-breaking discovery, of course. A player that gets less opportunity to score, will likely see a reduction in their points and it checks out here as well.

My main concern is how impactful will Ristolainen be when his biggest contribution (power play) is being given to another player on the roster in Dahlin. If Ristolainen is back, he should get time on the second power play unit, but it’ll be in a limited capacity.

We saw this transition begin to take place in the second half of last season. The Finnish defender went from averaging three and a half minutes with the man advantage, to under two minutes in March.

Last season, from October to December, he scored at a 51 points per 82 games pace. From January to April, when his minutes were reduced, he scored at a 39 points per 82 games pace. Over the last quarter of the season (20 games) when his average time on ice was the lowest, he scored at a 29 points per 82 games pace. That isn’t a large data set and could just be a cold spell. Having said that, with the change in usage, it’s worth noting.

Moving past the point production, the belief has always been if Ristolainen’s minutes are reduced that he’ll see better results in his on-ice impact at even strength. Unfortunately, that didn’t entirely check out last season.

You’ll see above that even when his average ice time at even strength was reduced, his expected goals for percentage was lower in most cases. In October, February, and March he had three of his four lowest average TOI months. Those same months were also three of his four lowest xGF% months at even strength.

This gives us an indication that even reducing his minutes will not help fix the fundamental flaws in his game. While limiting his ice time will reduce the overall impact on the team, it may not help generate better individual results for Ristolainen. His limitations in zone exits and overall hockey IQ are areas that are hard for any coach to correct. Especially nearly 500 games into a player’s career.

Lesser Return

This brings us to our next scenario. Are the Sabres better off just taking a lesser return to move on?

Immediately the nightmares of the Ryan O’Reilly trade begin to set off alarm bells in your head. I get that, but this situation is far different. O’Reilly was not a diminishing asset at the time of his trade and was still widely acknowledged as a good player around the league.

Ristolainen, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to have the perceived value that the Sabres were hoping for. It’s possible more teams than some thought, understand the shortcomings in his game and do not want to depart with a premium asset for an overpaid defenseman.

Realistically, he fits in on a team as a fourth or fifth defender that should be sheltered with a strong partner at 5 on 5 and can be a contributor on the power play. The issue is that this type of player should not carry a cap hit of $5.4 million. According to Cap Friendly, there are only 13 teams at this point that can take on the full contract of Ristolainen without having to send a player carrying a similar cap hit out the door. Of those 13, five of them have the cap money allocated to restricted free agents that still need to be signed.

The Sabres themselves are not in a cap situation where they can take on a bad contract to make a trade work with another team which limits the potential suitors. It wouldn’t surprise me if Botterill was approached by another team to see if he’d be willing to retain salary in a Ristolainen trade to make it work. It wouldn’t be an ideal situation for the Sabres, but it could increase the possible return.

All along the expectation for a Ristolainen trade has been to acquire a top-six forward in return. That is still an area of need, but the Sabres may have to take a different approach. Instead of targeting a no-doubt top-six forward, they may need to take a shot on a prospect that could develop into that player.

Two such players that come to mind are Jack Roslovic from the Winnipeg Jets and Jesse Puljujarvi from the Edmonton Oilers. Neither player has been given an opportunity to play in that type of role, but both carry the potential to be able to do so.

Those returns along with another piece (draft pick?) wouldn’t be the flashy move most were expecting. What it will do is move a player off the roster that isn’t happy and has been a net negative impact throughout the last few years. It’ll allow players like Montour and Miller to pick up those minutes that were consumed by Ristolainen. It would also allow Henri Jokiharju to slide into that sheltered role that the Sabres may have had to put Ristolainen in.

At the end of the day, this comes down to a player and cap value decision for the Sabres. Moving Ristolainen gets a $5.4 million defenseman off the roster in favor of a younger defender that makes less and has the potential to be a better player. In the process, the Sabres will pick up an asset that can develop into an important top-six forward with the young core that is already in place.

We’ll see which path Botterill ultimately decides to take. If Ristolainen is still around come training camp, the questions about his satisfaction with the organization and future will begin right away.