Sabres Ristolainen Reaching New Heights

As the Buffalo Sabres franchise floundered for years leading up to the 2018-19 campaign, Rasmus Ristolainen became a consistent topic of debate amongst fans. Doubts lingered (and still do, to an extent) regarding his viability as a long-term, top-pairing defenseman.

Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen
Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

His detractors were quick to point out sub-par Corsi metrics and inconsistent defensive play as justification for their apprehension. There was certainly merit to their concerns as the 24-year-old blueliner appeared to be ill-suited for his inflated workload. 26 games into the 2018-19 season and the narrative is quickly changing. With an improved supporting cast on the back-end, his true potential is finally being realized.

Ristolainen’s Hot Start

For a player who has been criticized as an inconsistent defender, Ristolainen has been as steady as they come in terms of point production. Over the last three seasons, he has registered 41, 45 and 41 points, respectively. With 17 points in 29 games so far this season, he is on pace to surpass his career-high. While his offensive acumen is certainly impressive, the real story lies beyond the stat sheet.

One of the big sticking points when it comes to Ristolainen is his deployment. Over the past three years leading up to this season, only two players in the NHL had a higher ice-time average (Ryan Suter and Drew Doughty). Say what you will about whether or not he is a true first-pairing defenseman, but that type of pressure on what had been a terrible team can make a player looks worse than they really are.

Rasmus Ristolainen Sabres
Only two players averaged more ice time per-game than Ristolainen from 2015-16 to 2017-18. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

That’s where the improved supporting cast comes into play. Though there wasn’t a lot of personnel turnover on the Buffalo blue line this summer, they’ve improved drastically as a unit. The insertion of 18-year-old rookie phenom, Rasmus Dahlin has certainly had a positive effect, and a healthy Zach Bogosian hasn’t hurt either. With increased competence on the second and third pairings, it has allowed Phil Housley to reduce Ristolainen’s workload if only a little.

Through 29 games, he has skated a team-high 25:27 per night, on average, more than a full minute reduction from last season. Clearly, the Sabres are still using him as their primary, all-situations option on the back-end, but as Dahlin continues to develop, expect that number to be reduced even further.

Another factor to consider is the Sabres’ improvement on offense. With more shots generated and sustained pressure in the opposing zone, Ristolainen and his contemporaries haven’t been relied on as heavily to play a stay-at-home, defensive game, which has allowed a little more free-wheeling and creativity, an area in which he excels.

Related: Sabres Mishandling Ristolainen

Newfound Swagger

On top of his undeniably strong play on defense, Ristolainen is just plain fun to watch as a playmaker. Recently, he has taken it upon himself to carry the puck into the offensive zone and create opportunities in deep. It’s something that he either wasn’t comfortable doing or wasn’t allowed to do in seasons past which has added a whole different dimension to his game.

As a result, we’re seeing a more confident player. That newfound confidence (bad celebrations notwithstanding) has made him very dangerous, adding another weapon to an already impressive offensive front in Buffalo.

Last season, fans clamored for the Nashville-style of defensive aggression on the forecheck that Housley’s unit displayed during his time as an assistant with the Predators. As the 2018-19 season marches on, it has become clear that the first-year head coach simply lacked the correct personnel to execute said system at the time. Sure, the Sabres new deep-forechecking approach could lead to more odd-man rushes, but it sure beats the alternative.

Ristolainen’s Future Outlook

The chatter has simmered down as of late, but early in the season, a healthy portion of the Sabres’ fan base wanted the organization to explore trading Ristolainen while his perceived value around the league was still conceivably high. Given his cap hit and term in comparison to his overall production, the return would have had to be very high to justify a move.

At the moment, he is the 37th-highest paid defenseman in the league. That means that he should be a middle-of-the-pack, first pairing defender. Since the start of the 2016-17 season, he ranks 23rd in points among blueliners, so from strictly a basic statistical standpoint, he’s well worth his cap hit of $5.4 million.

Rasmus Ristolainen Sabres
Ristolainen is currently the 37th-highest paid defender in the NHL. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Either way, he is very much part of the Sabres long-term plan on the blue line. Sure, the organization has added a lot of young talent in players like Dahlin, Lawrence Pilut, and Brendan Guhle, but that doesn’t suddenly make Ristolainen expendable. We’re talking about a defenseman who hasn’t even celebrated his 25th birthday. He’s also cost-controlled for the next four seasons. That’s just not the type of player you part with in today’s NHL (unless of course, you’re dealing with Peter Chiarelli).

Related: Dahlin Living Up to the Hype