A few defensemen in the league seem to always pop up in trade talks each season. For the Buffalo Sabres, that player is Rasmus Ristolainen. Although Jack Eichel gets all the attention and Sam Reinhart is also trade bait, Risto is right up there on that list.
Sometimes, this comes from speculation, but other times it comes from reports about teams showing genuine interest — sometimes both. The latest interest in Ristolianen reportedly comes from the New Jersey Devils. It’s suspected that Buffalo general manager Kevyn Adams will seek picks and prospects as he sells off parts of his roster to begin rebuilding a contender in The City of Good Neighbours. In this regard, the Devils have the kind of currency Adams wants.
As Lance Lysowski of The Buffalo News tweeted this week, several sources have confirmed this interest. The Devils’ apparent (or assumed) fit for Risto would be to fill the vacant spot that will presumably be left by New Jersey’s Connor Carrick, who is expected to test the market during free agency.
There isn’t much news available regarding what the Devils offered the Sabres for Ristolainen — or if talks proceeded to a point where GM Tom Fitzgerald even made an offer. With the Sabres’ woes and willingness to rebuild well documented among NHL GMs, Adams is sure to be listening on a lot of the players he currently has under contract.
Risto Knows the Score
“I want to win, if it’s in Buffalo or somewhere else,” Risto told NHL.com, “and I feel like when a team doesn’t get to the goal that is the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs, I think you need to make some changes. If changes happen, I know I’m one of the first ones probably who is going to get traded. It’s part of the business, and I’m ready, whatever happens. I have really enjoyed my time in Buffalo. It’s home for me.”
That statement was from May 2020.
This guy knows he’s on some teams’ shopping lists for this offseason, and he’s probably OK with leaving Buffalo. That’s great and all, but as a key member of the Sabres’ defensive corps over the past number of years, he will be missed. At the same time, we shouldn’t blame the guy for reading the writing on the wall. It’s not like he’s saying he wants out. He is just fine with it if he leaves. But it’s not like he gets a choice if it comes down to it, so you can read between the lines a bit.
Anyone on the Sabres can surmise that their time here might not be long-winded. The few that can say they will probably be a part of the rebuild for a while (whether they’re excited about that or not) are Dylan Cozens, Jack Quinn and the other young talents (UPL, Casey Mittlestadt, Jacob Bryson and others). Ristolainen borders the line as a keeper or an asset that can bring a good return to move along the process.
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Like I said before — it’s not the first time Ristolainen been mentioned in trade talks. During the 2018-19 season, the Sabres brought in two other right-shot defensemen in former Vegas Golden Knight Colin Miller and former Chicago Blackhawk Henri Jokiharju, which spawned questions about whether or not the Sabres saw them as replacements for Ristolainen.
Ristolainen’s numbers dipped last year, both in traditional and advanced metrics. But catching COVID-19 was a bit of a drag on the season. It’s funny (not) how being unable to exercise and struggling to breathe can harm your season.
But when you look at what type of defenseman Risto is, he’s bound to draw attention from a large swath of teams eager to improve at the position. Being a right-shot makes him all the more valuable. During the pandemic-shortened season, the Finnish defender had 33 points, with 6 goals and 27 assists. His minus-2 rating was the best of his career.
“I can’t control [trade rumors], so I don’t really think about them,” he told NHL.com in May 2020. “It’s hockey, and people are talking, say their opinion. I don’t care about that. I can’t win by myself, or I can’t lose by myself. It’s a team sport, so I just try to prepare myself for every game and for every season that I can do my best. The other guys are doing the same thing. It’s hard when you put all the work [in], and still, you don’t get results.”
The No. 8 pick of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season, making him a potential rental option. One thing’s for sure – if he does leave the Sabres’ blue line, a big hole on the backend will open up that the replacements who are currently available can’t plug. But, with the team trending towards at least one more season of basement-dwelling hockey, sacrificing that for the greater good of future success might be Adams’ best play.
Mike Carter is a freelance writer and contributor for the Buffalo Sabres with The Hockey Writers and NHLTradeRumors.Me He is @mikecarterlives on Twitter. Mike has been writing professionally since 2012, with stints as a reporter in northern British Columbia and Edmonton, Alberta. He now calls Salmon Arm, B.C. home.