Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Opening night comes into focus with signing of Ristolainen + roster moves

Published by, 10-11-12

It's finished.

Top Buffalo Sabres defenseman inked a six-year, $32.4 million contract this afternoon ending a rather long, yet extremely cordial, summer of negotiations. Most feel that the deal works well for both Ristolainen and the Sabres with the 21 yr. old native of Finland coming out a little bit ahead. Comparables in the matter included Florida's Aaron Ekblad at the high end as a top-flight, No. 1 defenseman at a $7.5 million cap-hit and Toronto's Morgan Reilly at $5 million average annual salary. The $5.4 million AAV that Ristolainen signed is the same average (and same length) that Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones re-upped for.

Jones was taken fourth-overall by the Nashville Predators in the same draft as Ristolainen who was the eighth overall pick by the Sabres. The Preds, who are deep on the blue line traded Jones to the Jackets for offensive help in the form of top-line center Ryan Johansen. Both Ristolainen and Jones played big roles on their respective blue lines with Ristolainen averaging over 25 minutes of ice-time and Jones averaging over 24 minutes while their career stat-lines look like this side-by-side:

Jones:  240 games, 17 goals, 66 assists, 83 points, -34 plus/minus
Ristolainen:  194 games, 19 goals, 46 assists, 65 points, -68 plus/minus

That staggering -68 would give anyone pause when comparing the two and fancy stats gurus are taking a few steps further by hammering Ristolainen for everything from possession to corsi. One particular guru urged his readers to consider this notion, "Think about how bad Buffalo has been the past few years; they’re even worse (based upon fancy stats) with Ristolainen on the ice."

Those of us who've been watching the 6'4" 207 lb. defensemen saw him take a big step last year as head coach Dan Bylsma had him playing the hardest, and most, defensive minutes on the team. Ristolainen also anchored a penalty-kill unit that went from 30th in 2014-15 to ninth last season and was on the team's top powerplay unit that went from 30th to 12th. When looking at stats like his team-worst minus-21, hidden in that number are empty net goals which contributed to nearly half that rating. And when the fancy-stat guru's gather info from his three seasons in the league, baked into all those numbers are two Sabres' teams that were destined to finish at the bottom of the league. That includes his point totals as well as he was skating for two Sabres teams that approached modern-day records for scoring futility in 2013-14 and 2014-15.

In a statement released by the Sabres, GM Tim Murray said of Ristolainen, "Rasmus has already proven to be a pivotal player on our blue line, and we are eager to have him back with the team. This deal is a reflection of the hard work and improvement Rasmus has shown since being drafted. And we hope to see him continue on this trajectory moving forward."

As for Ristolainen, he's rarin' to go. He spent September playing for Finland in the World Cup of Hockey and had been skating with the club, with Murray's permission, during the final stages of he contract. During his interviews with both Brian Duff of the Sabres and Mike Schopp of WGR that he's ready to go and is "ready for the team to take the next step."

With the Ristolainen signing, defenseman Brendan Guhle was sent to his junior club, the Prince Albert Raiders (WHL.) Although Guhle wasn't as spectacular at this camp as he was last year, he was real solid and made a pretty good case for at least a nine-game audition. However, numbers were against him as the top-six are in place and the reserve spot was taken by an older and equally competent rookie in Casey Nelson. Veteran defenseman Justin Falk was sent to Rochester yesterday pending waivers.

Injured Sabres top-six defensemen Zach Bogosian and Dmitry Kulikov skated with the team and it looks as if the defense is becoming more in focus. Head coach Dan Bylsma told the gathered media today that seeing Bogosian and Kulikov practice "should be a good sign" but also stated that they'll keep an eye on them the next two days. He did say later in the press conference, however, that "it looks like both of them will be able to go on Thursday."

Once again Bylsma pointed to the play of second-year defenseman Jake McCabe. The 22 yr. old had a stellar camp and played big minutes for Bylsma showing extreme competency and leadership throughout. McCabe is one of the players Bylsma is looking for to take on more responsibility this season. "I think you've seen Jake in particular in training camp take that role, take a leadership position," said Bylsma, "and be a card-carrying member of doing it the right way and playing/practicing the right way and that's what we need."

In addition to his defensive prowess and leadership, Bylsma had given McCabe powerplay time and it looks as if he'll be on the point this season. Prior to the Ristolainen signing, McCabe was seen skating on the first unit with Ryan O'Reilly, Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Tyler Ennis. It's something that will probably change once Ristolainen gets into the flow, but Bylsma could very well reward McCabe for his work by placing him on that unit at least to start the season.

In addition to Falk and Guhle, the Sabres trimmed their roster to the league mandated 23 players by sending three forwards to Rochester. Nicolas Baptiste, Daniel Catenacci and Alexander Nylander were all loaned to the Amerks and will begin their season as Rochester hosts the Hershey Bears on Friday, October 14th.

One final note, with the signing of Ristolainen, according to CapFriendly the Sabres are entering the season with about $2.2 million in cap-space. Should they chose to place forward Cody McCormick on long-term injured reserve, they will be able to go over the $73 million NHL cap-ceiling by his $1.5 million cap-hit.

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