Last season, the defensive pairing of Rasmus Ristolainen and Lawrence Pilut was one of the most effective duos on the Buffalo Sabres’ blue line. Since his arrival in Western New York, the organization had previously struggled to find a partner for whose skill set was complimentary to what Ristolainen brought to the table. Because of their immediate chemistry under Phil Housley, fans have clamored for the two to be reunited in 2019-20. Tonight, Sabres fans will finally get their wish.
Earlier this week, Pilut received his second call-up of the year (he spent he entirety of his brief November call-up in the press box). Having posted 21 points in 29 games with the Rochester Amerks this season (goof for third-most on the team), the two-time AHL All-Star was overdue for another opportunity with the big club.
According to reports from practice yesterday, Ralph Krueger had the 24-year-old skating alongside Ristolainen. Let’s take a look back to last season and examine the overall impact they brought to the Sabres’ blue line.
Prior to Pilut’s arrival, Ristolainen’s primary partners in 2018-19 were Jake McCabe and Marco Scandella (482:54 and 291:45 TOI, respectively). In both cases, he posted better relative Corsi, and xG numbers away from them. The contrast was particularly stark in Scandella’s case. Ristolainen’s relative Corsi took more than a nine-percent leap away from him, while his relative xGF percentage jumped a whopping 17-percent (cheers to the current coaching staff for finally splitting them up).
It is worth noting that in both cases, Ristolainen was being deployed in a defensive zone-heavy role (42.35 OZS with McCabe, and 34.91 OZS with Scandella). One of his short-comings since the beginning of his career revolved around his struggles as a zone-exit entity. When paired primarily with two partners who struggled equally (if not more) in that area, you can see why their metrics were particularly ugly, especially given how they were being deployed.
That’s where Pilut comes in. During his 33-game stint with the Sabres last season, Ristolainen was his primary partner by a wide margin. His 223 minutes with the Finnish veteran were more than triple that of his second-most consistent partner, Zach Bogosian. The underlying impact of their chemistry on the back-end was almost immediate.
(Pilut is the unmarked logo in the bottom-right quadrant below)
Every other partner with whom Ristolainen had spent more than 100 minutes in 2018-19 (of which there were a total of five) had a negative impact on him across the board (and vice-versa). None of the other assets on the Sabres’ lackluster blue line had the skill set to allow him to optimize his abilities. It took very little time for Pilut to become one of the team’s top zone-exit players on defense, making him an ideal fit.
Though their deployment as a pair was a bit more even than Ristolainen was previously accustomed (48.05-percent OZS), it still leaned defensive. Their relative Corsi mark of 5.21 and relative xGF percentage of 8.39 was far and away the best Ristolainen had experienced with any other partner since he and Bogosian posted excellent marks together in 2015-16 (122:10 TOI with an OZS rate of 63.04).
Looking back to last season, only the pairing of Brandon Montour and Rasmus Dahlin could be argued as an equally effective defensive tandem (with sample size being a consideration).
Fast-forward to 2019-20 and things have improved for Ristolainen as the team’s overall talent level has increased across the blue line (not particularly surprising). His relative Corsi has improved overall, as have his expected-goals metrics. Krueger’s defensive system has played a big role as well (perhaps the biggest), considering how his metrics have improved alongside the same primary defensive partner as last season in McCabe. While his base statistics have taken a hit as a result of no longer playing a consistent role on the Sabres’ top power-play unit, his five-on-five production has been solid, all things considered.
Still, Pilut’s long-awaited arrival is extremely exciting. In a demonstrably flawed system under Housley, he was able to succeed and help elevate a player who had previously been dragged down by sub-optimal defensive partners. In a much-improved on-ice approach under Krueger, it will be interesting to see if their impact as a pairing can become even more effective.
It remains to be seen how long these two get to mesh. Krueger frequently shakes up his defensive pairings, especially following a loss. If Pilut and Ristolainen can pick up where they left off however, he’d be wise to keep them together and let them continue to build chemistry moving forward. This of course all balances on the presumption that the Sabres will keep Pilut in Buffalo even after McCabe returns from his upper-body injury (which they absolutely should).
Pairing xG, and Zone-Exit/Entry Charts courtesy of Charting Hockey