BUFFALO – General manager Jason Botterill said he wasn’t surprised or disappointed defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen indicated in a Finnish interview last week he has asked the Sabres to be traded.
“There’s always stories coming out when players go back and … there’s stories from other organizations coming out of Finland and stuff, too,” Botterill said during Saturday’s Sabres Fan Fest inside KeyBank Center, an event that celebrated the team’s 50th anniversary season. “So those are some things we can’t control. What we can control is our interaction with our player, with our group here.”
“I cannot say anything other than the fact that on the 12th of September, (I will be at) one of the NHL team’s training camp,” said Ristolainen, who has compiled four straight 40-point seasons.
Botterill wouldn’t comment on his discussions with Ristolainen.
It’s no secret Ristolainen, 24, is frustrated. Since joining the Sabres in 2013-14, the former first-round pick has endured a lot of losing, never sniffing the playoffs. The Sabres have finished dead last three times in his career. Ralph Krueger, who was hired in May, is his fifth coach.
“I haven’t been able to help the team win,” Ristolainen told MTV. “Recent seasons have been tough and I haven’t been able to enjoy hockey.”
In recent seasons, a weak defense corps has forced the Sabres to rely on Ristolainen heavily. In 2018-19, he generated a ghastly minus-41 rating, the NHL’s worst number.
Botterill said the Sabres have “continued to interact with Risto” this summer. There’s a belief lightening his load and putting him in better situations would help him thrive.
The Sabres addressed their blue line earlier this offseason, dealing for Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju. They also acquired Brandon Montour before last season’s trade deadline.
“We’re continuing to try to set this team up where we’re putting Risto in positions to have success,” Botterill said. “Yeah, he wants to win. We also want to put him in a situation where he plays very well, and that’s what we’ve tried to do with some of the acquisitions, add depth to our defense, add competition to our defense. …
“I said it at the end of the regular season, I talked a lot about forwards, having four lines that could score. But it’s the same thing from the defense standpoint. That’s why we’ve tried to add to our group, to ease some of the responsibility from certain players.”
Krueger said he had a long phone call with Ristolainen in May.
“All the indications there was to be behind what we’re doing here as a coaching staff and that’s my mandate, to take the players under contract here right now and get the best of them,” Krueger said. “I’m excited to work with him.”
He added: “The messages I received from him was that if I’m his coach, he’s willing to do this and that and look for the next level of Rasmus Ristolainen. And that’s my job right now. He’s in our lineup, on our roster and I look forward to coaching him.”
Right now, the Sabres are $1,059,524 over the NHL’s $81.5 million salary cap, according to capfriendly.com. They have $82,559,524 committed to 24 players for the 2019-20 campaign.
Placing an injured defensemen on LTIR– Zach Bogosian and Lawrence Pilut both underwent surgery in the spring – would be one way to get under the cap, Botterill said.
Botterill also said defenseman Matt Hunwick, who battled injuries much of last season, is “still dealing with things.” He wouldn’t give any other details.
“We knew when we signed (winger) Marcus Johansson that we were going to be close to the cap this year,” Botterill said of the two-year, $9 million deal. “Longer term, we wanted to make sure we had the flexibility, and we have flexibility we believe after this year.”
Botterill didn’t use a buyout earlier this month when a 48-hour window opened after the team’s final arbitration case.
“You’re going to have to utilize them at some point,” Botterill said of buyouts. “But adding that cap hit longer term, we have a buyout hitting our cap right now. To have every little bit of space possible, that’s why I didn’t feel it was necessary to do it right now.”
The Sabres have $791,667 from former center Cody Hodgson’s contract on their cap for the next four years, according to capfriendly.com. The Sabres bought out Hodgson in 2015.
There was a belief the Sabres might use a post-arbitration buyout on forward Vladimir Sobotka, who struggled mightily last season.
Sobotka seemed unhappy with his limited role in his first campaign in Buffalo.
“I would say that maybe he wasn’t a happy player, but not a lot of players were very happy at the end of the year,” Botterill said. “We didn’t have a successful second half of the season.
“Our mindset with Vlad is he’s coming in and he’s part of our group. We have a new coach that’s going to put different players in different roles. You’re going to see at the start of training camp and then throughout the six preseason games a lot of different lineups, a lot of different players in different roles and situations.”