Ristolainen leads the Sabres in Evolving-Hockey’s GAR

Evolving-Hockey.com updated their 2019-2020 goals above replacement metrics and it is surprising.

In a bit of breaking news Wednesday, the Evolving Wild twins updated the 2019-2020 GAR and RAPM metrics to their site, evolving-hockey.com. It created some buzz amongst Sabres twitter because those who ventured over to the site saw a shocking name sitting atop the team in GAR and WAR - Rasmus Ristolainen.

GAR, or goals above replacement, is an attempt to measure a player’s true value on the basis of goals scored for and against when a player is on the ice. This metric is then, theoretically, able to be converted to “wins above replacement”, or WAR for short.

WAR metrics in hockey somewhat mimic the concept of WAR metrics used in baseball, where the stat originated. Evolving-Hockey’s metric takes into account even-strength, power play, and shorthanded situations, as well as penalties drawn and taken.

So why does Rasmus Ristolainen lead the way for the Sabres in GAR totals so far this season?

Well, for starters, Ristolainen has performed above replacement value in nearly every category. He totals a 3.6 GAR in total, but, by measure, his best area in total this season to date has been his even-strength offense at 1.2. His totals take a slight dip in even-strength defense, powerplay offense, shorthanded defense, and penalties taken, which all come in about equal. Penalties drawn is the only category that Ristolainen records at about replacement level so far, which isn’t all too rare for a defenseman.

Ristolainen supporters will take this information and cite improvement. The haters will scoff at this metric and point to his Corsi numbers so far. So which side is right? Well, GAR can tell us a bit more if we dig a little deeper.

You see, the problem with taking GAR totals is that heavy-minutes eaters, such as Ristolainen, are accumulating more of what happens on the ice than their teammates simply because they, themselves, are on the ice for more events. So, in a GAR model such as Evolving-Hockey’s that uses actual goals as its basis, there is a higher chance a goal event happens when this person is on the ice (for better or worse).

To paint a better picture, I personally like to turn to GAR/60, which measures a players goals above replacement per 60 minutes played because this puts every player on the same level as far as ice-time. This better displays what a player is doing with his ice-time given.

Interesting enough, when we look up the Sabres’ GAR/60 numbers, Ristolainen drops to sixth on the team, behind Casey Mittelstadt, Marco Scandella, Sam Reinhart, Jack Eichel, and Kyle Okposo, respectively.

What does the per-60 breakdown help us decipher about Ristolainen’s game? Well, there is one category that he is clearly best in, and it’s not even-strength offense like the totals told us.

His power play offense weighs in at 1.436, which comes to no surprise to those that have followed him closely. He’s always been a really strong asset on the power play, and it has showed in the past in his point totals. The difference this season, of course, is that he has been relegated to the second unit, which clearly receives less time to strut their stuff.

Interestingly, his second-best category has been his shorthanded defense, and then he floats a little above replacement level at even-strength offense and defense as well as penalties taken. Clearly, his even-strength GAR totals have been inflated by the fact that he is Buffalo’s even-strength minutes leader.

What can we conclude?

The answer is pretty much what we’ve concluded about Ristolainen for a few years now. He’s pretty much being overused at even-strength, although through the first 15 games this season he’s been able to remain a positive impact player. There are many teams across the NHL that he could upgrade on the power play, but with Rasmus Dahlin quarterbacking the first unit admirably it’s not likely he’ll get the opportunity in Buffalo going forward.

So in other words, his usage so far this season hasn’t really been to his strengths. He has, however, held up ok in the role he’s been cast. So really, the only question that remains, is, can Ristolainen keep it up?