Sabres Should Move on from Ristolainen

Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen has been one of the most talked-about names on the trade market. The stout right-handed defender has been linked to multiple teams including the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Vancouver Canucks.

With the recent trade acquisitions of defensemen Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju, speculation on what to do with the Finnish defenseman has only increased by the hour. It seems like all signs point to trading Ristolainen, but should Buffalo do it?

Ristolainen’s Beginnings

Rasmus Ristolainen was selected by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft in the first round with the eighth overall pick. He was drafted from TPS Turku in Finland’s Liiga where he was a starter from day one as a 17-year-old rookie.

Ristolainen made his NHL debut for the Sabres on Oct. 2, 2013, against the Detroit Red Wings. He played in 34 games that season scoring only four points before being sent down to play with the Rochester Americans of the AHL where he amassed 20 points in 34 games, including five playoff games.

Rasmus Ristolainen warming up for the Rochester Americans
Rasmus Ristolainen playing for the Rochester Americans during the 2013-14 season (Ross Bonander/THW)

In the 2014-15 season, Ristolainen stayed up with the Sabres for the entire season. He played in 78 games and averaged 20:36 of ice time. He had eight goals and 20 points that season before becoming the staple of Buffalo’s defense that he is today.

The following season, 2015-16, he doubled his point total after playing in all 82 games for Buffalo, collecting nine goals and 32 assists for 41 points. In 2016-17, he had his best point total with 45 points and his best plus/minus with a minus-nine.

For most of his career, Ristolainen has floated around 40-45 points and has established himself as an offensively-gifted, puck-moving defenseman. He passes well, knows how to score, and can quarterback the power play with ease. With all of the good things he can do, he still has his downfalls.

It’s Time to Move on from Ristolainen

Despite the good Ristolainen brings, he brings on more bad. Throughout his entire career, he has never had a positive season in the plus/minus category and his overall total for his career is minus-143. Now, plus/minus is a flawed category, but since entering the league no one has been anywhere close to his minus-143. The closest is Arizona Coyotes defender Oliver Ekman-Larsson with minus-97 since the 2013-14 season.

According to Evolving-Hockey, during the 2018-19 season, Ristolainen was on the ice for an average of 82.13 goals against per game. With the NHL season having 82 games, that means Ristolainen was on the ice for at least one goal against per game on average. Not the greatest.

New York Rangers right wing Michael Grabner followed by a falling Buffalo Sabres defender Rasmus Ristolainen during the 2018 winter classic
Rasmus Ristolainen falls down trying to prevent former New York Rangers winger Michael Grabner from getting the puck (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

Ristolainen is a huge defensive liability for the Sabres especially with the minutes he is playing. His biggest issue is the number of minutes he plays. At best, Ristolainen is a second-line pairing defender that should be playing around 15-to-18 minutes a night.

Last season for Buffalo, he averaged 24:38 minutes of ice time and in his career, he has averaged 24:14. Since Ristolainen became a full-time starter in the league he has played these high number of minutes, including a career-high of 26:30 minutes of ice time during the 2017-18 season.

The Sabres have made Ristolainen repeatedly play above what he is capable of and it shows. He plays these minutes because he was the best defender on a terrible team so there wasn’t another option. He’s a great skater, a good offensively-minded player, and an average defender that shouldn’t be playing almost 30 minutes a night on the top pairing.

Landing Spots for Ristolainen

There are many teams that would love the athleticism and playmaking ability that Ristolainen can bring to the table, but there are only a few places where it would make sense for him to go.

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

There are three teams in particular that make the most sense and have players that the Sabres should be chomping at the bit to get. Ristolainen has been in trade rumors for about three years now, and it may actually happen this year. The only reason a trade hasn’t happened yet may be that no one is willing to match the asking price of general manager Jason Botterill.

The three teams that make sense, two of which Buffalo has talked to before, are the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Vancouver Canucks, and the Winnipeg Jets. The Lightning tried desperately on the day of the trade deadline to land Ristolainen but ended up running out of time to please Botterill. It was rumored the Canucks tried the day of the draft and leading up to free agency, but alas, they couldn’t do anything either. Lastly, with Winnipeg moving out Jacob Trouba, who is a right-handed shot, it may make sense for them to target Ristolainen if they still want to make the playoffs and contend.

Tampa Bay Lightning

First, we will look at a few possibilities with the Lightning who are currently in “cap hell” and are struggling to find a way to pay star Brayden Point. The Lightning only have about $5.6 million in cap space – keep that in mind going forward.

In this trade, the Sabres have four players that they can realistically target using Ristolainen as trade bait. Those are Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Alex Killorn. Those four would add more offense to the Sabres, after the Marcus Johansson signing, to a team that couldn’t score past three guys (Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Jeff Skinner).

Tyler Johnson Tampa Bay Lightning
Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay Lightning (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Some trade scenarios that are possible could see two of those players going back to Buffalo, with the most realistic being Killorn and Palat being packaged together. The best option for Buffalo though would be to target Johnson and get that second-line center that the team is so desperately craving.

Vancouver Canucks

Next up we have the Canucks. They have about $5 million in cap space, and still have to pay one of their restricted free agent (RFA) stars: Brock Boeser.

With this possible trade scenario, it would most likely be centered around picks and prospects, but there is one player that I think Botterill would be smart to aggressively target. That is Bo Horvat.

In other scenarios, you are looking at probably trying to poach Jake Virtanen, Jett Woo, or Olli Juolevi. I think you could see a deal involving both Virtanen and Woo going back, but a Juolevi deal would be tougher. People may be down on the thought of Virtanen, but he is 22 years old and has shown flashes that he can be a very good top-six forward. He also may just need a change of scenery.

Jake Virtanen Canucks
Jake Virtanen, Vancouver Canucks, Nov. 21, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With that said, Buffalo should target Horvat. Last season he seemed to grow into his own as he had a career season with 61 points playing on the top line with Boeser. In part, his career may have been helped along by playing with Boeser, but he still had a great campaign. If he were to play alongside a guy like Victor Oloffson in Buffalo he could still put up great numbers. I’m not saying Oloffson and Boeser are comparable, but Oloffson has shown in his short NHL stint that he can hold his own and definitely score.

Winnipeg Jets

Last, but certainly not least, are the Winnipeg Jets. There have been rumblings that Buffalo might be a good trade partner for the Jets after trading Trouba, but it has been nothing but rumors. The Jets have to also pay their RFA stars in Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor. The Jets have about $23 million in cap space.

There are three players that Buffalo should target on this roster and all of them would be absolutely fantastic additions. Those players are Nikolaj Ehlers, Jack Roslovic, and Kyle Connor.

Winnipeg Jets Kyle Connor scoring on Boston Bruins Jaroslav Halak
Winnipeg Jets Kyle Connor scores on Boston Bruins Jaroslav Halak. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Far and away the best return for the Sabres would be Kyle Connor and before you say it’s not a possibility, hear me out. With the current trend of the market, Laine could easily ask for $11-13 million for his contract and so could Connor.

The Jets don’t have the space for that. If Botterill is able to pull it off and convince Winnipeg that trading away Connor would be good so they can re-sign Laine, by all means, do it. Even though to me, Connor is the better player with a better future.

If the Jets are unwilling to move Connor, that’s when you move onto taking Ehlers or Roslovic. Ehlers is a great goal scorer who could fill in beautifully on the second line. When Roslovic was given a chance during the season he showed that he could play high minutes and still be a great playmaker. Roslovic could be the anchor on that second line and really mesh with Johansson and whoever they put on his right side.

There is a dark horse theory though the Buffalo could possibly make a push for Laine, but Connor would be the better get. He’s a better skater, more athletic, and better all-around playmaker. Laine is good too, but if this season was apparent of anything, it’s that he is best for scoring goals and not much else.

Why the Time is Now to Move Ristolainen

In the end, this offseason makes the most sense for Buffalo to trade Ristolainen. A lot of teams are in cap trouble after the cap barely moved and was under projections. He gives Botterill limitless options and he has the highest trade value of players that he could move.

After acquiring Miller and Jokiharju, who are both right-handed shots like Ristolainen, it is evident that someone on the blue line is going to be traded. Will it be Ristolainen? That answer will be known soon enough.