Twenty-four hours ago, I said rumor season was slowly picking up. Well, it’s since changed quite a bit. In the last cycle of NHL news, we’ve seen the New Jersey Devils connected to Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, who they may have interest in acquiring through a trade:
Ristolainen finished this season with 18 points in 49 games, his lowest scoring rate in six seasons. Granted, he had an extremely brutal bout with COVID early in the season that surely affected him the rest of his 2020-21 campaign. Still, there were some significant red flags in his game before this season that should give Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald serious pause about acquiring the 26-year-old defender.
Also, in his latest edition of 31 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman wonders if the Devils would be interested in acquiring Shayne Gostisbehere from the Philadelphia Flyers if a sweetener were in the deal. We’ll touch upon that, but there’s some upside to taking a flyer on him, as he seems like a defenseman who’d benefit from a change of scenery.
Finally, a couple of quick thoughts on the Devils re-signing Nathan Bastian to a two-year deal.
Devils Must Steer Clear of Ristolainen
This offseason wouldn’t be the first we’ve heard the Devils and Ristolainen linked together. The interest seems to remain, and it’s not hard to see why they might value him. He’s 6-foot-4, 220 pounds and puts up points. But points can be deceiving for a defenseman, as it’s not a great way to evaluate how one performs.
One tool that can help is goals above replacement (GAR). Ristolainen finished this past season with a GAR of -4.3, but given how poor the Sabres were and how bad his case of COVID was, it’s hard to put too much stock into it. In his previous three seasons, he finished with a total GAR of 10.8, ranked 98th in the league for defensemen. It ranked that low due to his struggles at even strength, especially defensively, as his even-strength defense was below replacement level. The Sabres also gave him some incredibly hard assignments, but his results were less than desirable. Here’s how his Corsi share (CF%) against elite competition stacked up over the last four seasons (per PuckIQ):
|Season||Percent of TOI vs. Elite Competition||CF%|
There are a couple of things going on here. The Sabres were routinely caved in for four seasons in a row when Ristolainen was on the ice against elite competition. Two, it makes you wonder why the Sabres would continue to feed him minutes he clearly wasn’t capable of handling. If that’s the Devils’ plan for him, they’re going to be pretty disappointed with the results.
If there’s one saving grace for Ristolainen, it’s the power play. His power play offense has been worth a GAR of 6.3 over the last three seasons, ranked 10th-best among blueliners. The Devils’ power play was awful last season, so I think he can help improve it a bit. But their deployment of him at five-on-five would have to be a total 180 of how the Sabres managed his minutes.
The Devils cannot give Ristolainen first or even second-pair minutes. He’d have to play a sheltered third-pair role and serve as a power play specialist. Because of that, they shouldn’t be looking to give up any valuable assets for him. That’s especially true when you consider he only has one year left on his deal. And if anything, the Sabres should have to include a sweetener for the Devils to take on Ristolainen. Otherwise, Fitzgerald would be better off looking elsewhere. There will be other names on the trade market with the expansion draft coming up who offer much more at even strength than Ristolainen. And they’d likely help improve the Devils’ defense much more than he would.
Gostisbehere Fits Devils’ Needs
When the Flyers put Gostisbehere on waivers earlier this season, he seemed like someone who would’ve been a worthy claim for just about any team. He ended up clearing waivers, which isn’t a surprise given how the waiver wire worked this season. But even though a claim didn’t happen in March, the Devils would be wise to check in now because he does have an intriguing skill set that might fit head coach Lindy Ruff’s system.
Gostisbehere’s counting totals have slipped quite a bit since he put up 65 points in 2017-18, but there’s still an effective offensive defenseman in him. He struggled in 2019-20 but had a really solid bounce-back this season, finishing with a GAR of 9.1. That’s a bit below his expected GAR of 10.7, so he was even better than his GAR indicates. (It makes you wonder why the Flyers placed him on waivers, but that’s a different conversation).
One thing that should make Gostisbehere appealing to the Devils is his effectiveness in transition. When the Devils hired Ruff, they made it clear they wanted to play an up-tempo game. To do that, they need defensemen who can skate and move the puck up the ice cleanly.
Fortunately, Gostisbehere does that quite well. Not only does he enter the offensive zone with puck possession regularly (98th, 92nd percentile), but he also exits the defensive zone with possession at a very high level (97th, 93rd percentile). He’s not a top-pair defender, but he could thrive as a second pair, power play blueliner in Ruff’s system.
Friedman floated the idea of a possible sweetener involved in a trade. Gostisbehere has two years left on his deal at a cap hit of $4.5 million, which the Devils can afford without trouble. I doubt the sweetener would be anything too significant, but if the Devils can also come away with a second or third-round pick plus Gostisbehere, that’d be a good bit of business on their part. They add to their draft capital and get a player who can legitimately help their roster. So I think it’d be smart for Fitzgerald to inquire and see if there’s a deal to be had.
Lost in the rumor frenzy yesterday was the Devils taking care of some housekeeping when they re-signed restricted free agent Nathan Bastian. The two sides agreed to a two-year deal that comes with an average annual salary of $825,000. Bastian finished this season with 10 points in 41 games and became one of the team’s best penalty-killers. He also had decent defensive impacts at even strength.
Related: Devils Defense Needs Vince Dunn
With Bastian signed, the Devils are now closer to having met the expansion draft requirement of having two forwards under contract for 2021-22 who played 40 games the season prior or 70 games the previous two seasons that they can expose. With Bastian signed, it gives them an option to expose him for the expansion draft on July 21. They’ll need to sign a couple more RFAs (perhaps Michael McLeod, Nick Merkley) to avoid losing a quality player to Seattle. So expect some more housekeeping over the new few weeks.
That wraps up this edition of Devils News & Rumors. There’s likely to be plenty more over the coming days and weeks leading up to a busy July. Make sure to stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for the latest Devils and NHL coverage.
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Advanced stats from Evolving-Hockey, except where noted
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017