The Buffalo Sabres have finally found their pot of gold: the fortune to draft first. The 2018 NHL Entry Draft is special as its top prospect is the uniquely gifted defenseman; Rasmus Dahlin. This player will add significant value to the dumpster fire that has been the Sabres. And before anyone asks: NO! They are not trading the top pick or taking anyone other than Dahlin. If they do, I will eat guacamole, which is no different to diarrhea.
Dahlin possesses abilities that most forwards can only hope for and his addition to the Sabres affects the future of another defenseman: Rasmus Ristolainen. The 23 year old Finn has played top minutes in the NHL for three years and still cannot grow facial hair. He has been a topic of discussion amongst analytics gurus and other media as the stats and eye test can differ at times. General Manager Jason Botterill has flexibility with adding a superstud defender but he, with the coaching staff, will be focused on where Ristolainen falls long term. The option will be there to trade but is it the best decision?
Buffalo’s #1 Defenseman
There remains the truth that Ristolainen has been the Sabres’ #1 defenseman for three seasons. Yes, he has been. Think about any other defenseman during that time for the blue and gold and it is clear. Ristolainen has played the toughest minutes against the most challenging competition before he was old enough to buy a beer in the U.S.
This past season, Ristolainen averaged 26:30 per game which is top defender TOI. To give you an idea, that is more than P.K. Subban, Victor Hedman, and Brent Burns. Not to discredit him but Ristolainen should not be playing more than those three. The sad part is, if he did not, that means Justin Falk and Josh Gorges would be getting more ice time than they should. It would also mean that young defenders might be rushed in before they are ready. It has not been ideal but as the players often say, it is what it is.
Despite the disastrous results of 2017-18, Ristolainen ended the campaign with 41 points. He continued to be solid on the power play with 23 points and had 5 even strength goals. With few options with the extra man, Ristolainen found himself on the ice quite a bit as there were next-to-no options otherwise. The same could be said about penalty killing as it was he and Marco Scandella anchoring that unit. Remember how Ristolainen was an awful Corsi guy? Well… he was a 48.5% CorsiFor and 1.1 relative with an NHL defense partner (Scandella). Another contributing factor may have been the increased starts in the offensive zone (53% from 45.1%). Still not a great situation but it might not be as doom and gloom as once thought.
The two prior seasons appeared solid for Rasmus, even with poor advanced stats. The gap between him and the next best defender (Jake McCabe) was quite wide. In that sense, he would appear to be an elite, top defenseman. Then why did he look so rough this season?
One easy answer: Ristolainen was, again, overwhelmed despite talk of his minutes being regulated. His average ice time increased as Nathan Beaulieu‘s (traded for) year was one to forget. Defenders thought to be solutions, who would benefit from Phil Housley, disappointed or were injured (Zach Bogosian). As previously stated, it was inevitable that Ristolainen’s workload would remain above his ability. This resulted in poor decision making, with and without the puck, as well as a loss of his edge. Rasmus is at his best when aggressive in all zones and it was not consistent enough. WGR 550’s Paul Hamilton stated that Ristolainen may be the “most uncoachable player on the team.” If that is true, it would reflect in his play. For those most part, the defender, when at his best, plays how a coach would like but who knows if the miserable season and fatigue got to him. In the end, this was not his best season.
To Trade or Not to Trade
As the impending selection of Rasmus Dahlin looms, trade talks for the Sabre’s top blueliner are inevitable. Many teams will be in the market for a top-four defenseman and Jason Botterill will receive offers. Heading into his second season, the Sabre’s GM will not be underwhelmed. He knows Ristolainen has value to his own organization so it will not be cheap. But Botterill may be tempted.
Inevitably, GM’s around the league will see what Rasmus’ role has been and covet him as a #1 defenseman. Anyone remember how much Edmonton GM, Peter Chiarelli, valued Adam Larsson? And has that horse been beaten to death? If offered a top winger and decent draft pick, it will be difficult for Botterill to make a trade. And by top winger, it must be a player that does not make the the Sabres slower. Skating and hockey IQ will be desired undoubtably in a return for Ristolainen as Botterill recognizes his value with a potential franchise defender on the way. Unlike before, the Sabres can be open to a trade but identify the appropriate return.
The Case for Retaining
As the addition of Dahlin opens the Sabres to trading Ristolainen, it also changes his role long-term. In a year or two, the #1 pick is likely the franchise defenseman in Buffalo. As a result, Ristolainen can be used as a 2/3 defender with a better situation. Rasmus’ playing time can be less than 25 minutes to maximize his value and improve depth on the blueline. The once top defenseman will be in a role that his skills are better suited for. And with Dahlin being on an entry level contract, Ristolainen’s salary will be cost controlled for 4 more seasons. It will be ideal for their 18 year old to develop as Ristolainen can share some responsibility without being overwhelmed. When Rasmus’ contract expires, that is a whole other scenario but retaining him for the interim has value.
Jason Botterill will have more flexibility for the off-season as the Sabres will be selecting a potential phenom. They can focus on the depth of the blue line and adding/developing wingers for the top-six. In addition, there are more possibilities for Rasmus Ristolainen as he will not be required to be the top defenseman for the future of the franchise.
Short-term prediction: Ristolainen will be on the Sabres roster barring a trade that overvalues him. The 6’4″ defender will see a gradual decrease in TOI as the brass add depth that can actually play in the NHL. Rasmus Dahlin’s progress allows Ristolainen to be at his best without having to play half of each game.
Long-term prediction: Eventually, Rasmus Ristolainen will be on another NHL team. With knowledge of how the Brent Seabrook/Kevin Shattenkirk situation unfolded, the player and agent will want a raise from $5.4 million. Ristolainen will be 26 and have some miles left. The Sabres will have developed depth on the blue line that allows them to part ways. Unless the raise is minimal, Botterill will find a trade partner or leave him to free agency.
Twitter can be the worst. People have tweeted how Rasmus Ristolainen is trash defensively which is an exaggeration. He has been exhausted in Buffalo and it reflected in his play this past season. Moving forward, he will land in the right spot. When Tyler Myers traded to Winnepeg, weight was lifted and he improved. With that in mind, hopefully the same will happen for Ristolainen. Otherwise it will be another piece that got away.
What do you think the Sabres should do with Ristolainen? And what are your feelings on guacamole? Comment below or join in the conversation on twitter.
How do you feel about guacamole?
— The 4th Line Hockey Podcast (@4thLinePodcast) May 12, 2018
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