The Buffalo Sabres ended their eighteen game winless streak on Wednesday and finally enjoyed playing hockey again. During that losing streak, Jack Eichel was injured and placed on long-term injury reserve, both goaltenders got injured, and the team traded Eric Staal to the Montreal Canadiens. With that finally behind the organization, it is time to get to work ahead of the trade deadline. The team needs to trade players that won’t be here next season for future assets, whether it is draft capital of prospects.
Many of the trade conversation surrounding this franchise has been about Eichel, Taylor Hall, and Sam Reinhart, but a player that should be traded is Rasmus Ristolainen. He is currently playing his eight-season as a Sabre and has been scrutinized in every possible fashion. Whether it is by TV analysts or fans of the team, he needs to have a fresh start somewhere else.
It has been long overdue for the Sabres to trade Ristolainen, and I will explore the trade value of the player and what team’s should be looking at acquiring him.
What Is His Trade Value?
To get a sense of his potential value in a deal, CapFriendly offers a tool that compares contracts of similar players around the league. When using this tool, the comparables for Ristolainen that signed their contracts before being traded were Brady Skjei, when he was a member of the New York Rangers, and Justin Faulk, when he was a member of the Carolina Hurricanes.
These players are a guideline to how a potential Ristolainen deal could be structured. Starting with the Skjei trade, the Hurricanes traded a first-round pick for the blueliner. The Hurricanes were clearly contenders, and that ended up being the 19th pick, and the Rangers selected defenseman Braden Schneider.
The Faulk trade was structured differently, as there were a player and prospect involved. The St. Louis Blues parted ways with Joel Edmundson, forward prospect Dominik Bokk, a 2021 fifth-round pick for Faulk, and a 2020 fifth-round pick. St. Louis made this trade to prepare for the scenario of Alex Petriangelo leaving as a free agent, and it turned out to be the correct decision. Although Faulk is not exactly a suitable replacement, and the Blues have declined this season, a trade package consisting of three assets could also be on general manager Kevyn Adams’ radar.
After evaluating these packages, the consensus is that Ristolainen will likely fetch less in return for various reasons. The league has been affected by the pandemic, and trades are more complicated due to quarantining factors, making teams more hesitant. His cap hit of $5.4 million is high for a player that should be on a second-pairing, so the possibility of retaining salary might have to be an option for the Sabres.
Another problem that could emerge is his poor on-ice results. JFresh Hockey creates player visualizations that showcase WAR percentage and various metrics that contribute to the overall number. Below is his visualization on Ristolainen. When comparing him to every player in the league, he ranks in the fifth percentile in WAR, the eighth percentile in even-strength offense, and the fifteenth percentile in even-strength defense.
A potential suitor would be acquiring him for the remainder of this year and next season. Luckily for the Sabres, that could be enticing to numerous teams and could raise his trade value. Let’s explore the teams that could be interested in acquiring Ristolainen as a reclamation project.
What Teams Should Be Interested?
A team that is interested in acquiring Ristolainen has to be aware of his flaws. Although a lot of the blame could be put on his deployment as a top-pairing defenseman, he is best suited on a second-pairing that plays sheltered minutes. This player has showcased his skill, as seen by this end-to-end rush that led to a goal, and the potential to rejuvenate his career is possible if he ends up in the right destination.
The first team that should be interested is the Florida Panthers. The gruesome injury to Aaron Ekblad will keep him out for the remainder of the season, and they have to find a player to replace him with. Mackenzie Weegar is a very underrated defenseman and is capable of playing on a top-pairing. Although the more attractive candidate would be Mattias Ekholm of the Nashville Predators, their recent six-game winning streak has probably made him unavailable.
A trade for Ristolainen trade would send Anton Stralman back to the Sabres, which means the Panthers would have to deal their first-round pick in the upcoming draft. Stralman’s contract expires after next season, and although he has steadily declined the past few seasons, he provides some leadership to a team that needs it. Overall, this deal would benefit both sides, as Ristolainen would be a second-pairing defenseman playing on the powerplay. The Sabres would acquire a future asset and a player that is serviceable in return.
The second team that should be interested is the Winnipeg Jets. Neal Pionk is already their powerplay quarterback, and Josh Morrissey is their shutdown defender, but those two players, they don’t generate a lot of offense from their blueline. Mathieu Perreault has a cap hit of $4.125 million, which is high for a player of his caliber. He would be a part of the trade package in return, and that would allow the Sabres to acquire Winnipeg’s first-round pick in the upcoming draft in return.
If Winnipeg was unwilling to part ways with that pick, there could be an opportunity to acquire Kristian Vesalainen, one of their better prospects. He is a 21-year-old winger and has struggled to find a fit in the Jets lineup. He is still very young, and if Winnipeg were willing to give him up, the Sabres would likely have to add another asset into the equation. That could make this deal tricky.
These teams would provide the best situation for Ristolainen moving forwards, as they would allow him to be deployed lower in the lineup, and the pressure is taken off of him. It won’t be easy to make the cap situation work in these deals, but it is possible. The Sabres should be looking at a first-round pick in return if they take on a higher-salary player unless they can acquire a prospect like Vesalainen.
The trade deadline is less than two weeks away, and there will be less movement than we are used to seeing. Let’s hope a Ristolainen trade happens as it would benefit the player, the teams involved and entertain the fans who anticipate some moves.
Jordan Jacklin is a freelance writer who covers the Buffalo Sabres here at The Hockey Writers. Jordan is a student at Ryerson’s Sport Media program and uses analytics and video scouting to evaluate your favourite players in the game.