During the offseason, one of the major topics that were discussed continuously was what the Buffalo Sabres should do with Rasmus Ristolainen. Various reports had him on the trade block and we even heard reports that the Finnish defender would have welcomed a trade out of Buffalo. Yet, no move was made.
Ristolainen showed up to training camp under a new head coach with determination to turn some things in his game around. To his credit and my surprise, he’s done that so far this season. He has bought into the defensive system under Ralph Krueger this season.
The 25-year-old is having arguably his best season to this point for the Sabres. According to Evolving Hockey, he’s having his best season at 5 on 5 in goal differential (49.98%), shot quality share (47.12%), goals for per 60 minutes (2.45), and his lowest on-ice shot quality against since the 2015-16 season (2.19). Ristolainen has reversed a downward trend in his goals above replacement this season and his GAR/60 this year is the highest it has ever been (0.211), according to Evolving Hockey’s model.
The Sabres have finally reduced his minutes at 5 on 5 and are being rewarded for it. His 16:53 TOI/GP at 5 on 5, according to Natural StatTrick, is the lowest of his career since the 2014-15 season.
He’s also continued to produce offensively even though he’s not receiving the minutes he has in the past on the top power play unit. As of late, he’s been utilized on the power play with Victor Olofsson out of the lineup and it has helped get a struggling unit going again. At 5 on 5, he’s having his second-highest points per 60 minutes (0.8) of his career. He is currently on pace to score 38 points this season, which is just slightly under his career average.
There are still parts of Ristolainen’s game that can drive you nuts, but there’s no need to drag him down on it at this point. He’s done a good job rebuilding his value and being a key part of the Sabres defensive turnaround this season.
Now, having said all that…
*takes a deep breath*
The Sabres should still try to trade Ristolainen as soon as the right deal presents itself. Before you start yelling at your screen, just hear me out.
There are still shortcomings in his game, but that’s not what I’m going to focus on here to explain my reasoning. We all know that the Sabres have an overabundance of defensemen on their roster and in the system in general. This about dealing from a position of strength (defense) and acquiring a player for a positional weakness (forward).
Of the players that the Sabres realistically would trade on the blue line, Ristolainen still holds the most value around the league. Having a career season will only help the Sabres move the player for fair value. The only other argument for a player close to his value that would be a realistic trade option is Brandon Montour. However, after trading a first-round pick and a prospect for him less than a year ago, you would think Jason Botterill wouldn’t want to go down that road.
Looking at the organizational depth beyond this season, the Sabres are set on the right side of their defense. Henri Jokiharju and Montour would be your top two right-shot defensemen. Followed by Colin Miller as a bottom-pair defender, if he remains with the Sabres. Don’t forget about Will Borgen that is still developing in the AHL.
This is one of the reasons that many believed he would be moved in the summer. Botterill made it a focus to add three right-shot defenders to his roster in a matter of six months and invested heavily into the players he acquired. He gave up Brendan Guhle, Alex Nylander, a first-round pick, a second-round pick, and a fifth-round pick to revamp the right side of his blue line.
The other factor that comes into play here is the expansion draft for the new Seattle franchise coming in the summer of 2021. The draft will operate under the same rules that the league used back in 2017 for the Vegas Golden Knights. The Sabres can go with the eight skaters and one goalie protection list or the 7-3-1 breakdown.
Looking at the roster right now, the two obvious players on the blue line that will be protected are Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju. That leaves a decision between Montour and Ristolainen for that third spot on the protected list. The Sabres could play it out one more season and decide.
The problem is, if they wait until after the 2020-21 season to move Ristolainen, his contract becomes an issue. After this season, the Finnish blueliner has two years remaining on his deal with a $5.4 million cap hit. If they wait until after next season to make a decision he’ll only have one year remaining before becoming an unrestricted free agent and his value drops on the market.
Do the Sabres want to hand Ristolainen a new long-term contract? He’ll probably be looking for a deal higher than what Tyler Myers received (five-years, $6 million cap hit) from the Vancouver Canucks last summer.
If not, it makes sense for the Sabres to move on from Ristolainen as soon as a fair deal can be completed. He’ll have two years remaining on his contract with a decent cap-hit for a defenseman that can give you top-four minutes. In return, the Sabres would be able to acquire the top-six forward that the roster is in desperate need of.
Regardless if you believe Ristolainen is good or bad, the truth is that he remains the Sabres’ most-valuable and expendable asset in the trade market.