If one were to think of the most polarizing hockey player on the Buffalo Sabres, Rasmus Ristolainen is likely the first name that comes to mind. It was not too long ago when he was considered to be a key piece going forward by the Sabres front office and fans.
The 2015-16 season allowed him to show off his offensive ability as a 21-year-old Ristolainen recorded 41 points in 82 games after getting time on the top power play unit. Despite his display of great offensive ability, he struggled defensively and struggled to produce while playing 5v5 hockey. However, many attributed this to him being given a large number of defensive zone starts (56.3%) and facing difficult competition, 2nd to only Josh Gorges among Sabres defensemen in both categories.
Fast forward three years later, Ristolainen is now 24 years old and has yet to show much improvement in his defense or his 5v5 production. Times have changed and the chances of him ever becoming a true top pairing defenseman are becoming slimmer and slimmer. So, what should the Sabres do with Rasmus Ristolainen?
Let us first evaluate Ristolainen’s game and take a look at his strengths. Even his biggest critics have to admit that he has the ability to make some high-end offensive plays. Just think back to this past November, when he took the puck from his own blueline, rushed the puck into the zone, pulled off a vicious between-the-leg deke on Brent Burns, and scored an absolute beauty on Martin Jones. There are not many forwards in the league, let alone defensemen, who have the offensive talent to pull off a move like that.
Another strength of Ristolainen’s game is his performance on the power play. This past season he recorded 17 points on the power play, which placed him 16th among NHL defensemen. If one goes back to 2016-17, before the arrival of Phil Housley and Rasmus Dahlin, Ristolainen finished 4th among NHL defensemen with 25 power play points, ahead of players such as Brent Burns, Torey Krug, and Alex Pietrangelo.
In 2018-19, Ristolainen was 12th among NHL defensemen with a 3.0 PP GAR (Power Play Goals Above Replacement), a statistic that measures the total amount of power play goals a player adds to his team relative to a replacement level player. While he struggles with many aspects of the defensive game, one area where Ristolainen excels is the power play.
It is worth noting that 18 year-old teammate, Rasmus Dahlin, was 20th among NHL defensemen with a 2.2 PP GAR. He also recorded 21 power play points in 2018-19, more than Ristolainen’s 17 power play points. Dahlin received more power play responsibility as the season went on and ended the season on the top power play unit while Ristolainen was demoted to the second unit. The young and talented Dahlin likely has the reigns on the top unit for the foreseeable future. While that certainly lowers the Ristolainen’s value to the Sabres, it is certainly beneficial to have a talented defenseman such as him on the 2nd unit.
However, the Sabres acquired another young, offensive-minded defenseman prior to the 2019 Trade Deadline in Brandon Montour. He has been one of the league’s top defensemen in terms of zone entries and has shown that he is more than capable of running the 2nd power play unit, a task he was given while Anaheim. The addition of Montour certainly does not firmly place Ristolainen on the trade block, but it certainly makes him more expendable than before.
Next, we will take a look at the areas of the game where Rasmus Ristolainen struggles. The first being a very important aspect of the game: 5v5 play. 19 of Ristolainen’s 43 points last season came during 5v5 play. His 19 5v5 points ranks 3rd among Sabres defensemen, behind Brandon Montour (23) and Rasmus Dahlin (20). He had averaged 0.8 Points/60 during 5v5 play which placed him 5th among Sabres defensemen, behind Montour, Beaulieu, Dahlin, and Bogosian. Ristolainen’s impressive offensive numbers begin to look a lot less impressive when one focuses in on his 5v5 play.
Things start to get even uglier when one looks at his possession metrics. His Corsi For % of 47.9% was the 3rd worst among 11 eligible Sabres defensemen (only Marco Scandella and Matt Hunwick were worse). His xGF% (expected goals for / expected goals against) of 47.2% ranks 7th among 11 Sabres defensemen.
Ristolainen had a 5v5 GAR of -1.0, which ranked 8th among Sabres defenseman. That statistic is basically saying that a replacement level defenseman could produce one more goal than Ristolainen. Now, he is a player the Sabres heavily relied upon as a top pairing defenseman, so that is certainly not a very encouraging statistic.
The area where Ristolainen struggles the most has to be puck distribution. The ideal modern NHL defenseman is a guy who can move the puck and create offense from the back end. In 2018-19, his zone exits with possession % was in the 22nd percentile of NHL players and his zone entry with possession % was in the 43rd percentile. I think it’s safe to say that is far from ideal for a defenseman who averaged 24:38 TOI per game last season.
Sometimes these puck distribution numbers can be poor if a player is known as a defensive defenseman, take a guy like Esa Lindell as an example. However, Ristolainen is not that great defensively either as he is in the 32nd percentile for Breakups/60 on entry defense and the 31st percentile for entry with possession allowed %. These numbers reveal that if a team is looking to enter the zone, they will most likely enter on Ristolainen’s side of the ice due to his defensive woes. Once again, that is not something one would like to see in a player utilized as a #1 D.
But, as everyone knows, statistics are useless without context. One certainly has to consider the fact that Rasmus Ristolainen had the most difficult quality of competition among all Sabres defenseman. Also, 53.7% of Ristolainen’s zone starts were in the defensive zone, the 2nd highest among Sabres D, only behind Jake McCabe. But, many would consider McCabe to be more of a defensive defenseman compared to a player like Ristolainen who is more of an offensive defenseman. So why use Ristolainen in a high percentage of defensive zone faceoffs? Well that’s because of this magic thing called misutilization.
NHL teams can not only struggle due to lack of depth or lack of talent, but they can also struggle due to misutilization of their talent. Misutilization of talent was one of the biggest problems during the Phil Housley era in Buffalo and Rasmus Ristolainen was one of its biggest victims. Now, Phil Housley claims to have used analytics in his coaching decisions, but the way he used his players says otherwise.
Let us do a quick recap of what the analytics have told us about Rasmus Ristolainen so far. First off, he strives on the power play and that is where his bread is buttered. He has the talent to be a part of a top power play unit on many NHL teams. Secondly, he struggles during 5v5 play, but this can be attributed to not being paired with a proper partner and/or being thrown into a role he cannot fulfill. Thirdly, despite his flashy offensive skills he is not great at entering and exiting zones. And finally, he is not the strongest player defensively and should not be relied upon to be one of the strongest players defensively. All of these things point to someone who is not an all-purpose, top pairing defenseman, but it does not mean that Ristolainen cannot be a useful defenseman for the Sabres.
With the arrival of Ralph Krueger this summer, Sabres fans have to hope that he knows how to properly utilize a guy like Ristolainen. But what is his proper utilization? In my mind, it is taking advantage of his offensive ability and finding him a partner who can cover for his deficiencies. One way the Sabres can better utilize his offense is by lessening his role. He should be getting more offensive zone starts, less ice time and should play against easier competition. Ristolainen should no longer be placed into the role of a top pairing defenseman as that is a role where he has not and will not be able to succeed.
It is essential that the Sabres find Ristolainen a partner to cover up for his deficiencies. While he does struggle a bit defensively, Ristolainen struggles most in puck distribution. Fortunately for the Sabres, they have a player like Lawrence Pilut, a fantastic puck-moving defenseman, who excels in zone exits and entries. While Pilut may also be lacking defensively, the best offense can sometimes be the best defense. The two players actually played together for over 200 minutes last season and were one of the Sabres best pairings in terms of expected goal differential per 60 minutes.
I am a firm believer that Rasmus Ristolainen can be a useful piece on the Sabres blueline when utilized properly. While a $5.4 million cap hit is not pretty for a guy who may have to be sheltered, I do not believe he is a guy who should be willingly traded away at any cost. I would not be completely against trading him in a package for some quality scoring depth, but I would not trade him for a mediocre assortment of picks and prospects.
Ristolainen is a talented player who was thrown into a role he was not ready for due to a lack of defensive depth. Today, the Sabres are building up that depth with a future #1 guy in Rasmus Dahlin along with young players such as Brandon Montour, Jake McCabe, Lawrence Pilut, and Casey Nelson. They also have some promising D prospects with Will Borgen, Oskari Laaksonen, Mattias Samuelsson, and Jacob Bryson.
The increased depth on the blueline and the new coaching staff will hopefully allow the Sabres to more clearly view Ristolainen and better utilize his abilities. I do not view Ristolainen as a core piece on the blueline, but I do believe he has the ability to be an impact player on a good hockey team. In the end, hockey is a team sport and even players with deficiencies can be valuable when matched with the proper players and placed in the proper situations.
Statistics provided by Corsica, Corey Sznajder, Natural Stat Trick, and Evolving-Hockey