Sabres’ injuries on defense shouldn’t alter their plan for Ristolainen

With Lawrence Pilut and Zach Bogosian likely to miss the start of the 2019-20 season, fans have speculated as to how their recoveries might entice the Sabres to hang onto Rasmus Ristolainen

Last month, the Buffalo Sabres announced that veteran defenseman, Zach Bogosian would require hip surgery for the second time in as many years. The procedure holds a four-to-six month window for recovery, which means that he will likely sit in the press box for at least another month, once the 2019-20 season begins. Following a season where the 28-year-old appeared in 65 games for the blue-and-gold (his highest total since the 2011-12 season), the announcement came as a bit of a letdown.

The bad news on the blue line got even worse yesterday when the team announced that promising young defenseman, Lawrence Pilut would also undergo offseason surgery (shoulder) that would keep him off the ice for five-to-six months. As a potentially integral member of the Sabres’ top-four next season, the 23-year-old’s procedure could leave the Sabres quite thin on the back-end to start the year.

It’s no secret that, similar to Ryan O’Reilly last summer, Rasmus Ristolainen has been the primary topic of trade discussion as we approach what most expect to be a busy summer for Jason Botterill and the gang. His exit (via trade) was seen by some as an almost foregone conclusion. That was until Bogosian and Pilut’s respective recovery times were revealed, leading fans to wonder if the Sabres’ plans might change, given the circumstances.

Assuming that both players take six months to fully recover, that would leave them sidelined until the middle of November (leading them to miss roughly 12-15 games). That’s significant, but is it enough to make Botterill change course if he was indeed planning to deal Ristolainen this summer? Probably not.

Since the beginning of last season, fans speculated about a potential trade return for the longest-tenured Sabres defender. Most expected (and continue to expect) a top-six winger to come back as part of the deal. Regardless, there was a general consensus among trade prognosticators that the team would need to find a way to fill the void on the right side, should they actually trade him for help up front. Even with the addition of Brandon Montour at last season’s deadline, fans still acknowledged this requirement.

Now, having two defensive roster players missing for the first month of the season is a big deal, but it likely isn’t enough to sway the front office away from a trade that would reasonably hold a long-term impact. The loss of Pilut and Bogosian may entice Botterill to add one more defensive depth piece than he originally planned, but that’s probably it, especially if he has the framework of a Ristolainen trade already in place (perhaps with the Tampa Bay Lighting, a team that reportedly held discussions with the Sabres over this very topic, before the trade deadline).

A key component to consider here is whether or not Ristolainen holds up as a non-depreciating asset beyond this summer. There are certainly teams out there who would be enthralled enough with his base numbers to acquire him, but his market will likely shrink if the Sabres wait any longer to pursue a trade.

Every year, more and more organizations are investing in their analytics departments. It’s no secret that the 24-year-old stacks up pretty poorly against his defensive contemporaries when you look beyond his basic scoring statistics (a topic that has been discussed frequently on here, most recently by Chad DeDominicis, whose latest in-depth analysis can be found here).

How long can Buffalo afford to hang onto him before the potential returns become unsavory? Many would argue that the organization has already reached the point of no return in that regard. If Botterill believes that this summer is his last, best chance to acquire a substantial return for Ristolainen, he cannot, and will not let two short-term injuries derail his plans.

All of that being said, there is still a possibility that the Sabres’ brass plans on keeping him in the fold regardless. Last month, Elliotte Friedman reported that there is a belief that Botterill was asking prospective coaching candidates how they would utilize a player like Ristolainen. Whether that line of questioning was meant to gauge his candidate’s analytical savvy, or if he is truly considering keeping him (in the hope that his performance would improve as the result of a significantly altered role), remains to be seen.