The news has broken out recently, and it’s come as no surprise that Rasmus Ristolainen has requested a trade from the Buffalo Sabres. The defenseman has been a key piece on the Sabres blue line, however, his over-usage has resulted in sub-par play over the last few seasons. Since 2015-16, he has averaged well over 24 minutes a game and was even averaging 25-26 minutes in the last couple seasons.
With the Sabres planning to have Rasmus Dahlin not only be the quarterback on the power play but also be the go-to No. 1 defender, there really seems to be no fit for an offensive specialist like Ristolainen on the team anymore. The Sabres could ultimately limit his minutes, but in five full seasons, he now is a minus-128 in the plus/minus department. That definitely takes a toll on the mental psyche and confidence.
While people seem to think plus/minus is a stat that is the be-all-end-all of defensive talent, it’s more of a stat telling how good a team is and the usage/role that a player has on that team. A power-play specialist being asked to play top minutes on one of the worst teams in the NHL will certainly have a terrible plus/minus. The Sabres trying to force Ristolainen to be a defender you can rely upon defensively and offensively is like trying to put a square piece in a triangular hole. His plus-minus by no means proves he’s a terrible defender, but rather, a defenseman who is being asked to do something that completely goes against and limits the strengths in his game.
With all that in mind, the question remains: how would he fit in the Edmonton Oilers system if a trade happens?
Positives: Offensive Blue Line Help & Forward Depth Resurgence
A power play with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl is an obvious recipe for success, as shown by their 22.2% success rate last season. The addition of Ristolainen would allow defenders on the power play to shift down the depth chart and focus more on even strength or have a lessened role on the second unit. The two defensemen from last season mainly in question are Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom.
On one hand, Nurse definitely had a breakout season for the Oilers, managing to be the fourth-highest scorer on the team with 41 points in 82 games. Klefbom, on the other hand, was sixth in team scoring, managing 28 points in 61 games. While the obvious choice from looking at the stats would be to just play Nurse on the power play, it’s worth noting that his game revolves around his physicality and being strong on the puck. Having him spend time on the power play, especially when most of his points last year were at even strength (31 even-strength points, 9 power play points) is an absolute waste of his abilities and usage of time as a defender. Nurse would be a much better fit as a second power-play defenseman along with holding penalty killing responsibilities so he can be at his best during even-strength.
As for Klefbom, he does get a lot more of his points on the power play (17 points even strength, 11 points power play). He’s also another two-way defender being asked to produce on the power play. While he can chip in offensively with his excellent shot, he largely benefits from having two of the NHL’s best players in McDavid and Draisaitl on his power play unit. Unfortunately, the defender has had troubles playing a full season, playing over 70 games only once in his six-season career.
The addition of Ristolainen would not only provide the Oilers with an immediate power-play quarterback they can rely upon to deliver and create offense on special teams, but it will allow the lacklustre forward depth to start producing more often at even-strength rather than being forced into a power-play role. The Oilers defensive depth will also allow Ristolainen to take more of a sheltered role, allowing Nurse and Klefbom to play more to their strengths.
Negatives: Evan Bouchard & Finance
You can’t have positives without obviously having some negatives in these types of trades. Arguably the biggest negative that would come with a Ristolainen trade is that he would be filling the role that Evan Bouchard is supposed to play. Bouchard has been a light of hope for Oilers fans, finally having a prospect amount to and even exceed expectations. The 19-year-old had a phenomenal 2018-19 season split between the OHL and AHL, amassing 53 points in 45 games for the OHL London Knights along with eight points in eight games for the AHL Bakersfield Condors during their playoff run.
It’s very evident his offensive game is his strength and, being a right-handed defenseman, he fits the bill of being a similar type to Ristolainen, except potentially better in his defensive zone. This is shown by his play in the OHL. A trade for Ristolainen could either mean that Bouchard would never reach his full potential and the team would have two right-handed, offensively-sound defensemen on their blue line. The other option being Bouchard usurps Ristolainen on the depth chart and Ristolainen finds himself in the same scenario as now. His purpose is to be that spark plug that a power play needs and one could argue that a team with a 22.2% power play doesn’t even need a specialist.
Another argument that comes is the Oilers financial situation. Currently, the Oilers have a projected $2,433,001 of cap space and Ristolainen currently carries a $5.4 million cap hit for three more years. Acquiring him would mean either having to dump Kris Russell and throw in numerous future pieces to make up for the contract or the Oilers would have to give up a current NHL defender, likely Adam Larsson, to make room for Ristolainen. Larsson certainly wouldn’t be enough, unless the Sabres are absolutely desperate, and the potential deal would cost the Oilers more pieces. Overall, for a team that could benefit from saving money, this doesn’t seem like the wisest move in that aspect.
Let’s say in this theoretical world we’ve built that the Oilers are going to pull the trigger on Ristolainen. There are two pieces that would absolutely have to go to the Sabres, one being an aforementioned defender. Russell doesn’t exactly make the most sense for the Sabres, as they’re ultimately looking to get into the playoff picture soon. However, they could benefit from the number of future assets that the Oilers would have to give up for this trade to work. On the Oilers side of things, they upgrade from Russell to a much more offensively-gifted Ristolainen while maintaining the core of their defensive depth at the cost of their future.
The other defenseman who would have to go if not Russell is Larsson. Larsson was acquired for Taylor Hall in what is possibly one of the worst trades in NHL history. That’s not to say Larsson isn’t a good player, he is very defensively sound in his own zone and is your stereotypical stay-at-home defenseman. The Sabres would get a defender who could help Dahlin use his offensive gifts more often while Ristolainen would do the inverse for the Oilers. While it likely wouldn’t be worth it for the Oilers to give up Larsson, it would help clear up space for both Bouchard and Ristolainen on the right side.
The other piece would have to be Jesse Puljujarvi. Puljujarvi and the Oilers relationship has hit rock bottom and it’s likely that he will never play another game in an Oilers uniform.
For obvious reasons, it would seem that he would be a throw-in for a theoretical deal. Overall, it would be an interesting scenario taking place if the Oilers acquired Ristolainen. One that would be full of question marks that can only be sorted out with time.