BUFFALO – The statistic has dogged Rasmus Ristolainen throughout his six-year NHL career. It has never improved, even after the Finn morphed into the Sabres’ top workhorse and a 40-point defenseman.
Since Oct. 3, 2013, the start of Ristolainen’s rookie season, he has compiled the league’s worst plus-minus rating, an awful minus-135 over 412 games.
How ugly is that number? Arizona Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson has accumulated the second-worst rating over that stretch, a minus-93 in 50 fewer appearances.
This season, Ristolainen owns a league-worst minus-33 rating. In his last five outings, some of the most meaningful contests of his career, he is a minus-11.
On Tuesday, a day after the Sabres’ 4-3 loss to the Edmonton Oilers, Ristolainen looked like he would rather be doing anything else other than talking. Clearly, the team’s struggles and his own are weighing on him.
When asked about his recent stretch of games, he replied with a four-letter expletive.
Ristolainen has never talked much about himself. Still, his crossed arms and terse answers showcased his frustration.
He knows his plus-minus stinks.
“We’ve been talking about the plus-minus for six years, so I’m done talking about it,” Ristolainen said Tuesday outside the team’s dressing room inside KeyBank Center.
Plus-minus has lost relevance in recent years as advance stats and other metrics have emerged. Still, when it gets as high as Ristolainen’s, something is probably wrong.
“I don’t really look at stats,” said Ristolainen, who was a minus-25 last season. “I count wins and haven’t done good enough to win games.”
For the first time in his career, Ristolainen has played late-winter games with playoff implications. While the Sabres fell out of a spot long ago, they remained within striking distance until last week, when they lost three times.
In Monday’s 4-3 loss to the Oilers, the Sabres blew an opportunity to inch back up the standings. Edmonton scored three times with Ristolainen on the ice.
With the Sabres up 3-1 late in the second period, Zach Kassian one-timed Connor McDavid’s slick pass in front of Ristolainen for a goal.
“When you play guys like McDavid … you can’t have one bad shift,” said Ristolainen, who appeared to lose Kassian. “I think that was the turning point in the game.”
Kassian’s goal ignited the Oilers, who roared back and scored three times in a stretch of 3:26 before the second period ended.
“It makes you mentally tougher when things are not going the easiest way,” Ristolainen said. “There’s no quitting.”
Sabres winger Kyle Okposo understands how Ristolainen feels. A season ago, Okposo compiled a wretched minus-34, the worst rating among NHL forwards.
“I was in a similar position last year,” Okposo said. “It’s a tough thing. You can see it kind of weighing on him. But he’s a big part of our team. He’s an impact player on our team, so we believe in him and we’re just going to keep trusting him.
“I know he expects a lot out of himself and he works extremely hard. We got to believe it’s going to turn for him.”
He added: “It weighs on a player, for sure. You look at it, it can look ugly. Sometimes it’s not indicative of how a game went and other times it is.”
Of course, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Ristolainen does plenty of things well. He has recorded 39 points this season and at least 41 in each of the last three years.
Through 66 outings this season, he has averaged 24 minutes, 54 seconds of ice time. He has averaged at least 25 minutes a contest in each of the last three seasons.
One scout who has watched Ristolainen regularly for years said in addition to his offensive skills, he uses his “elite” size and strength to “impact the game physically on a consistent basis.”
“(He) will block shots and has zero fear in his game,” the scout said.
For years, there has been a belief Ristolainen would improve when the Sabres did. He has endured a lot of losing. Having entered the NHL as a teenager, he has played big roles on mostly terrible teams his entire career.
Better depth would allow the Sabres to cut his ice time and give him better matchups.
“The biggest question mark is his hockey IQ and ability to read and react to the situation that presents itself during the game,” the scout said. “In his defense, he has been thrust into situations very early in his career on very weak teams that has not helped his overall development and confidence.
“His minutes may need to be scaled back and may need a change of scenery to meet (his) full potential.”