Last summer, Buffalo Sabres’ defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen pushed his body to higher levels of strength and cardio conditioning by flipping tires. This summer, he’s the focal point of trade speculation as several teams continue to “kick the tires” in terms of his availability.
Under Contract with the Sabres
The Sabres don’t have to or need to trade Ristolainen. He’s under contract for three more seasons at a reasonable $5.4 million per year AAV and cap hit. When his contract expires July 1, 2022, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent.
“We value Risto a lot as a player – a right-shot defenseman, a physical presence,” said Botterill back in June. “We understand there’s going to be inquiries about him. We’re open as an organization to continuing to trying to find ways to improve our team, but we’re very glad to have Risto as part of our organization.”
But with the Sabres’ glaring need for an NHL-ready second-line center and a surplus of right-shot defenseman thanks to general manager Jason Botterill’s offseason moves, Ristolainen’s name continues to be prominent. Several teams have been linked to his future services dating back to last season’s trade deadline, this summer’s draft, and free agency.
According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, “Ristolainen is available but price is very high. Buffalo might target a player like Anthony Mantha with Ristolainen. Scared of selling low after ROR trade”
Ristolainen, a 24-year-old right-shot blueliner, has already played 424 NHL games and exactly zero playoff games. He’s chipped in 36 goals and 158 assists for 194 points. Roughly two-thirds of his goals (25 of 36) and nearly half of his assists (73 of 158) have been at even strength.
The native of Finland has a cumulative minus-143 rating (the worst of all NHL players since entering the league in 2013), including a whopping minus-41 (the league-worst) during the 2018-19 season. Though plus-minus statistics are often misleading, on the whole Ristolainen’s analytics are not good. It may be partly excused by being both overused and misused by former head coach Phil Housley.
He’s a durable, minute-hogging machine, averaging 24:14 of ice time per game. Since 2014-15, his first full season in the NHL, only 20 defenseman in the league have appeared in more games. Only seven have logged more minutes. Only 10 have averaged more minutes per night.
Teams Kicking Tires on Ristolainen
The Winnipeg Jets, Tampa Bay Lightning, Vancouver Canucks, Minnesota Wild have all been linked to trade rumors with/for Ristolainen.
Ristolainen could fill the Jets’ immediate need for a right-handed blueliner since they lost Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers. While they acquired Neal Pionk, he’s likely more of a bottom-pairing defenseman.
It’s deceiving to feel good about the Jets’ $17 million in cap space. They still have to sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor to new deals. Adding Ristolainen would require a subtraction of salary. Several returns have been shuttled around in the media, including 23-year-old left winger Nikolaj Ehlers who is signed through 2024-25 at $6 million annually. Though the Sabres have several left-wingers, one or two of them could be shifted to the right-wing to make room for Ehlers.
Unlike Ristolainen, Ehlers is an analytics darling. He moves well through the neutral zone with speed, drives play and has put up consistent numbers. One black spot on his resume: his postseason numbers are ugly. He’s yet to score a goal in 21 playoff games.
The return could also be Jack Roslovic, a former 2015 first-round pick who plays center and right-wing. He has one more year remaining on his roughly $900,000 entry-level contract, so another player with salary would have to head to the Sabres to relieve salary cap stress. That could be Mathieu Perreault who is a dependable bottom-six forward who can chip in on the second power-play unit.
“It’s been all rumors,” said Jeff Hamilton of the from the Winnipeg Free Press.
The Lightning, struggling with cap space issues, have been linked to Ristolainen. The return could include center Anthony Cirelli.
Back in mid-June, the Canucks desperately wanted to bolster their right side defense corp. Jim Benning’s squad was often linked to Ristolainen.
The Wild were shopping versatile winger Jason Zucker. The consistent 20-goal scorer has a modified no-trade clause. Though they have right-shot defensemen Matt Dumba and Jared Spurgeon as their top guys, the latter only has one year remaining on his contract. Ristolainen could offer them a cost-controlled player.
Sabres’ Right-Shot Defensemen
The Sabres have a glut of right-handed defenseman. Recent additions Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju have joined Brandon Montour, Zach Bogosian and Ristolainen.
Alternate captain Zach Bogosian will not be ready for the beginning of the season since he’s recuperating from hip surgery. Jokiharju, though he played nearly half a season with the Chicago Blackhawks, may start the season with the Amerks in Rochester.
Time for a Change of Scenery for Ristolainen
Like most Sabres players, Ristolainen knows nothing but losing in the NHL. In his six seasons, he’s played through multiple coaching and general manager changes as well as several culture overhauls. His negative metrics may be somewhat pardoned by his incorrect deployment by coaches. Also, given the dearth of talent on the team’s blue line, he’s been forced to play far too many minutes on a nightly basis against opponent’s top lines. The fact is that Ristolainen has struggled too regularly on a team that has consistently been among the worst in the league.
Related: Sabres Should Keep Ristolainen
The smooth-skating Ristolainen consistently puts up 40 points and often plays with snarl and sandpaper. He also sees time on the power play. His skill set is valuable and with proper coaching and a deeper lineup, he could turn a whole new corner.
The Hindsight of Getting Fleeced
The sting of Botterill dealing Ryan O’Reilly, the eventual Conn Smythe Trophy winner, to the St. Louis Blues for spare parts and hope likely still hurts. Many fans are gun shy about moving him though it could be time to move the valuable asset to get another NHL-ready valuable asset. Botterill could be listening to offers and waiting until the meet his asking price. Top-four, 6-foot-4, 215 pound defensemen aren’t easy to find.
It could be argued that the Sabres’ roster overhaul since March and a new coaching staff offer up a fresh start for Ristolainen. That in itself is a change of scenery. It’d be great to see him stay in Buffalo and improve. To trade him and see him excel with another team would be an overly nasty bitter pill to swallow. That said, changes on paper don’t always translate into wins in the standings.
Where Will Ristolainen Play?
Ristolainen is far from perfect; he has plenty of flaws. His breakout plays are often fraught with giveaways and he’s prone to poor defensive reads and allows opponents to enter the zone easily. After 400 games, his weaknesses are easily seen. That said, he’s hardly among the main reasons the Sabres now hold the league’s longest playoff drought – eight seasons.
Despite his stats and experience, Botterill still considers Ristolainen as a “developing player.”
When paired with the right partner and not overloaded, he could thrive. The big question… is that going to happen in Buffalo with new coach Ralph Krueger or on a new team?
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”