VANCOUVER – Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill knows plenty of teams would like to pry away a 6-foot-4 defenseman capable of gobbling up minutes and producing points like Rasmus Ristolainen.
“We understand there’s going to be inquiries about him,” Botterill said Friday morning, hours before the NHL Draft inside Rogers Arena. “We’re open as an organization to continuing to try to find ways to improve our team. But we realize and we’re very glad to have Risto here as part of our organization.”
Ristolainen, 24, might be Botterill’s most coveted asset. In two years as GM, he has shown a penchant for trying to improve the Sabres through trades.
Clearly, Botterill will listen to what teams would offer for the Finn.
Still, Botterill is interested to see how Ristolainen, who has already played 424 NHL games over six seasons, might develop under new Sabres coach Ralph Krueger.
“We value Risto a lot as a player – a right-shot defenseman, a physical presence,” Botterill said. “Ralph and I have talked a lot about, ‘Hey, how do we continue his development?’ I know everybody talks about development in our organization, they talk more about (Rasmus) Dahlin, (Casey) Mittelstadt, some of our players who aren’t here yet. But we still view Risto as a development player.
Botterill said the Sabres don’t plan to buy out the final season of forward Vladimir Sobotka’s contract.
The Czech struggled mightily in his first season with the Sabres, compiling five goals, 13 points and a minus-20 rating in 69 games.
After a solid start, Sobotka endured a three-month goal drought.
Sobotka, part of the Ryan O’Reilly trade with the St. Louis Blues, will earn the $3.5 million in 2019-20.
The buyout period opened last Saturday.
The Sabres will open next season on the road Oct. 3 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the NHL announced Friday.
The home portion of the schedule starts Oct. 5 versus the New Jersey Devils, who drafted Jack Hughes first overall Friday.
The rest of the schedule will be released Tuesday.
Botterill said all of the Sabres’ restricted free agents who were NHL regulars received qualifying offers.
There was some speculation the Sabres might pass on retaining forwards Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson.
A smiling Botterill said the Sabres would like to add a goalie at the draft Saturday.
“Oh, come on, you know we always want more goaltenders,” he said.
The Sabres utilized veteran Carter Hutton, 33, and youngster Linus Ullmark, 25, last season. Both netminders struggled following strong starts.
They also have Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, one of hockey’s top goalie prospects. The Finn, 20, will likely start next season in the AHL with the Rochester Americans after a stellar campaign with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves.
“You’re always looking to add goaltending to the mix, to the fold, just because you understand it’s going to be a longer development and it’s always a little bit more difficult predicting that,” Botterill said.
Besides Ristolainen, the Sabres have another young player, winger Alexander Nylander, teams might be interested in pursuing.
Through three pro seasons, Nylander, 21, hasn’t developed into the talent many thought he would when the Sabres drafted him eighth overall in 2016.
Nylander compiled 12 goals and 31 points in 49 contests with the Amerks in 2018-19. The Swede then scored two goals and four points in 12 late-season NHL outings.
A lower-body injury sidelined Nylander all three of the Amerks’ playoff games.
“There was a lot of growth in his game last year,” Botterill said. “You saw it, I think, in his time in the National Hockey League. Is the consistency there in the National Hockey League yet? No. But in all reality, you look at this age group, that should have been his first year pro.
“So I think what’s been really good is the engagement he’s had with our coaches both in Rochester and the development staff and just understanding what we’re looking for him to improve on his game. He’s certainly working at it.”
Nylander joined the Amerks at 18 instead of staying in junior.
Botterill said the San Jose Sharks have up until the 122nd selection to decide if they want to give the Sabres that pick or their 2020 third-rounder as part of the Evander Kane trade.
Clarence Center’s Casey McCarthy, a defenseman with the U.S. National Team Development Program, could be drafted Saturday during the final six rounds.
In what has become a yearly tradition at the draft, the crowd inside Rogers Arena mercilessly booed NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
As the booing continued, Bettman went behind the stage and emerged with Canucks legends Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
After announcing the Sedins would have their jersey numbers retired as part of the Canucks’ 50th anniversary season and the twin brothers spoke, the crowd sent Bettman off with more booing.