Los Angeles’ Jeff Carter pursues Rasmus Ristolainen last season. ©2019, Hickling Images

Rasmus Ristolainen might be Sabres’ biggest trade chip

VANCOUVER – Rasmus Ristolainen has certainly showcased flashes of brilliance as the Buffalo Sabres’ workhorse defenseman.

Remember when he torched superstar Brent Burns in November to extend the Sabres’ winning streak to 10 games? What about the time he took over a game in 2015-16 against the Calgary Flames, scoring a hat trick in just a 12-minute span?

Three years ago, the Finn appeared to be taking his first steps into stardom. The Sabres, a season removed from tanking, looked like a team on the upswing.

Fast forward to today, and Ristolainen, who compiled the NHL’s worst rating last season, a ghastly minus-41, could be on the trading block.

At this point, after six losing seasons, a change of scenery might benefit Ristolainen. The Sabres have finished dead last three times in his career. Ralph Krueger is already his fifth coach.

The constant losing Ristolainen has endured – the Sabres haven’t sniffed the playoffs – has clearly beaten him down.

Just watch an interview with him.

“Quite frankly and respectfully, it hasn’t been easy playing in Buffalo,” said former NHL goalie Kevin Weekes, an NHL Network analyst.

The Sabres, fresh off another ugly campaign, need to make significant changes. Ristolainen might be general manager Jason Botterill’s biggest trade chip this offseason, which kicks into high gear with the NHL Draft this weekend. The first round is tonight.

Of course, Botterill, might want to keep Ristolainen. They don’t exactly have a lot of defensemen on the roster or in the pipeline capable of handling his workload.

“When you’re in a build phase, you got to be careful with your assets and you just can’t move them for movement’s sake,” Weekes said.

Former Flames GM Craig Button, a TSN analyst, learned that firsthand when he worked for the Minnesota North Stars.

When Bobby Clarke took over as GM, he traded defenseman Larry Murphy, a future Hall of Famer, in 1990.

“A month later, we were looking for a player just like Larry Murphy,” Button said. “We finally found him when we traded for Sergei Zubov six years later.”

Botterill might also shy away from dishing Ristolainen a year after trading center Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues, who just won the Stanley Cup.

So far, the deal ranks as one of the most lopsided in recent memory.

“Have the Buffalo Sabres not learned from the Ryan O’Reilly fiasco last summer?” Button asked.

O’Reilly earned the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Meanwhile, the three forwards the Sabres received – Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson – produced little or nothing.

The Sabres do, however, have the Blues’ first-rounder tonight, the 31st pick.

Make no mistake, while Ristolainen possesses some flaws, especially in his own zone, he is a very good defenseman. He has recorded four straight 40-point seasons.

But the upheaval and turmoil he has experienced likely stunted his development.

“The Buffalo Sabres better take a good, long, hard look at themselves,” Button said, “because have you set up players to be successful as you want them to be, have you put them in position for them to be successful, have you surrounded them? I would answer no.”

To Button, a change of scenery “doesn’t always have to mean an exit.”

“It can also mean helping a player there,” Button said. “I think that’s where you have to really spend time evaluating players before you move them out.”

Button used the Boston Bruins’ defense tandem of Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo as an example.

“Torey Krug is a great-skating offensive defenseman,” Button said. “Brandon Carlo is a really good defensive defenseman. They complement one another. So therefore Brandon Carlo doesn’t have to do things he’s not capable of.

“Krug doesn’t have to do things he’s not capable of, and they’re comfortable knowing that their partner can pick up parts of their game that they can’t carry. The Buffalo Sabres haven’t done that with Rasmus.”

Two-time 50-goal scorer Jeremy Roenick, an NBC Sports analyst, said Ristolainen still hasn’t figured out what type of defenseman he wants to be.

“You’ve seen some of these goals he scored, and they’re amazing offensive rushes,” Roenick said. “But here we have a team that needs strong defensive guys. So what’s he going to be?”

He added: “I don’t think he realizes how good he can be. I think unfortunately he’s caught on a team that needs to be better structurally.”

Like many other observers, Roenick believes casting Ristolainen in a different role and trimming his minutes will help him.

Since 2014-15, he has compiled an NHL-worst minus-128 rating. No one else is above minus-93.

“If I was a GM, I would assign him to a three, four defenseman in a New York minute,” Roenick said.

Perhaps Krueger will do that. His predecessors talked about lightening Ristolainen’s workload, yet they never followed through.

“There needs to be somebody,” Weekes said, “who could say, ‘Hey, Risto, here’s what we see of you as a player. What do you see of you as a player? And here’s what we’re projecting for you and here’s how we’re going to help you get there.”

5 thoughts on “Rasmus Ristolainen might be Sabres’ biggest trade chip”

  1. Ristolainen has been set up to fail, but I think he has talent that the Sabres can benefit from if he’s given a chance. Trade talk is foolish, there are a lot of parallels to the O’Reilly situation last year. The Sabres would again be dealing from a position of weakness, and the results would be the team would not get what Ristolainen is worth. Tage Thompson may still develop into a good player, but conditions on the Sabres team certainly weren’t conducive to bringing out the best in young players. The Sabres don’t need more projects. They also don’t need a coach bent on making players play the coach’s pet concept of a system that they just aren’t capable of doing, and I think that may be the biggest factor in the Sabres prolonged period of pronounced glaring mediocrity. Good teams, in any sport, don’t try to ram square pegs in round holes. They utilize players in a manner that allows them to play in their strengths, Bill Belichick is a master at it. Barry Trotz did it with the Islanders and produced a dramatic turn around by employing a system that the players were able to excel in. It’s essential that Krueger does the same. The Sabres have talent, but every player is dealing from a position of lack of confidence in varying degrees. It’s essential the talent is used properly if more of the same type of ugly results is to be avoided.

  2. As much as we need forward help, i’d like to see Risto stay & be put into a better position to succeed. Years ago we ran Tyler Myers out of town & today we’re talking about doing the same thing to Risto. And fans today on messageboards are suggestion we bring Myers back for our 2nd pairing. Lol we wouldn’t have to even consider that if we just kept him. Lets not make the same mistake. If we let him go, in a few years we’ll be saying the same thing about Risto. Keep ur talented players & coach them up. Pair a defensive dman with Risto to give him the freedom to make plays & cover back home when needed & dont make him play 25 minutes a game & i guarantee he’ll be a critical part of our D going forward. Dahlin should be paired with a stay at home dman too. It just makes sense that you’d want to have that kind of balance.

    At 18 years old we thru Risto into a #1 role, making him play the toughest minutes & expecting him to do everything. Thats a lot of pressure for a young kid, especially one moving to a new country, playing a new type of hockey while growing into a man. Thats a lot to adjust to. We’ve put too much pressure on him, used him improperly & havent paired him up with a partner to get the best out of him.

    Hopefully there are other “assets” we can trade to get some forwards here. Unless we can get a solid dman & a top 6 forward, we shouldnt move him imo. It’d be another mistake in a long list of em

  3. I would definitely trade one of the worst Defensemen in the league. I’ve seen many reports on his Plus Minus, all terrible. As bad as -143 for his 6 years in the league. That is horrific. 6 years and he can not play defense?

    1. A quick refresh for those who may have forgotten – Nobody has been playing even average defense on the Sabres until Dahlin came along. Ristolainen basically has had no assistance, no stability, and is on his 4th or 5th coach and system since entering the league (not to mention the parade of mediocre defensemen he’s been paired with). He doesn’t know what good coaching is, and has never experienced a winning season in the NHL. Buffalo has got to quit trading away and just plain flushing it’s top draft picks down the toilet. Ristolainen may not be a top 4 defenseman, but utilized and coached correctly he certainly has value (if he doesn’t, why the trade talk?), that won’t be recovered in another ill conceived trade. The organization got burned good on the O’Reilly trade, and is still searching for a #2 center. (Meanwhile, O’Reilly , who got raked over the coals for an honest remark, had his best ever season with the Blues, and was instrumental in the Blues winning the Stanley Cup (enough so to be named MVP, that’s all). Gee, guess he wasn’t a problem after all. And what prize did the Sabres receive in return? All I hear is the loud chirping of crickets. Almost as bad as when Drury and Briere were allowed to walk away in free agency for zero, zip, zilch, nada). More consistent goaltending would help too. It’s a team effort or a team failure, no 1 individual should have the blame of the last 5 years of failure pinned on him. Plenty of the Sabres have lousy plus/minus numbers. They can’t help but be bad when you lose as much as they have, and on top of that aren’t scoring either. The Sabres losing seasons are a cornucopia of Minuses on all the Sabres. Okposo has been dreadful too, but nobody talks trade on him, because of the cap hit, etc., not to mention he’s past his prime and nobody is interested in taking on his inflated .salary

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