Wednesday, March 22, 2017

No real reason to continue overplaying Ristolainen and O'Reilly

Published by, 3-20-2017

The facts:

--22 yr. old Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen is presently fourth in the NHL in average time on ice (ATOI) at 27:01. Last season he was 10th at 25:16.

--For the second season in a row Ryan O'Reilly leads all NHL forwards with 21:39 ATOI. Last season the 26 yr. old logged an average of 21:44 minutes/game.

--The 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres have a record of 29-31-12 and although they're not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, their goose is cooked as they're nine points out of the second wild card spot with six teams to jump.

The Sabres have themselves a bit of a conundrum headed into tonight's matchup with the Detroit Red Wings as a thin blue line got even thinner. Taylor Fedun, who was called up because of an injury to Justin Falk, and Cody Franson will not be playing in Detroit tonight after suffering injuries in Anaheim on Friday. It got to the point where head coach Dan Bylsma was rotating three defensemen against the Ducks.

“You go from left D to right D to rest, and you came out and went to the left D, then right D and then rest,” Bylsma told the media. “It was a short time, but we had the rotation going there. The fresh guy goes to the farthest point on the ice, and you move toward the bench to get some rest.”

For Ristolainen, it was just another day at the office as he logged as smidge over 30 minutes of ice-time in Buffalo's 2-1 shootout win over Anaheim. It was the second time in the last four games he has logged 30 or more minutes of ice time, the eighth time he's done since breaking the mark 27 games into the season.

Being the hockey player that he is, Ristolainen is more than willing to carry a huge load for the team. He's been in tip-top physical shape since finishing his rookie season in 2014 and Bylsma, as we've seen, hasn't been shy about feeding him as many minutes as he can while the 6'4" 203 lb. Finn will never shy away from that load. “The workload is fine,” Ristolainen said via a Bill Hoppe piece in the Olean Times Herald. “I don’t feel it too much.”

However, playing that many minutes as a young player will catch up to you. Ristolainen, according to his coach, plays those minutes hard and that will eventually take it's toll.

“The problem with Rasmus playing 30 minutes is he just plays them so hard, so physical,” Bylsma said via the Hoppe piece. “He’s all in when he plays 30 minutes like that, and that’s tough for anybody to do. There are some guys who play that much in their careers and tend to manage it a bit better than Rasmus.

“Rasmus, he’s giving you everything he’s got. If he’s out there two minutes for a shift, he will give you everything he has at the end of that two minutes. That is on an empty tank sometimes.”

That is a sign of youthful invincibility, but it also should be taken as a warning sign.

At this point in the season, with the team effectively out of the playoff race and not much to play for except pride, paring back Ristolainen's minutes should be prioritized. A cautionary tale can be found in the story of Chicago Cubs manager Jim Riggleman and his use of phenom pitcher Kerry Wood.

We all know of the Cubs curse (which ended with their 2016 World Series win) and Wood came to Chicago bearing the weight of that. As a rookie in 1998 Wood fireballed his way to 233 strikeouts and Rookie of the Year honors. Wood, however, developed arm problems that would define his career and the opinion around the league is that Riggleman overused him.

Riggleman was in the fourth year of a marginal at best tenure with the Cubs and Wood allowed the Cubs to get into the playoffs for the first time since 1989 as a wild card. But the cost was high as Wood underwent Tommy John surgery and spent the entire 1999 season on the disabled list.

He was never quite the same after that.

You could also point to NFL phenom quarterback Robert Griffin III as a young player who looks to have been ridden into the ground. The Washington Redskins sent three first round draft picks and a second rounder to move up in the draft to select him as their franchise quarterback while the read option was the rage in the NFL. During his 2012 rookie year, RGIII was the master at that and it looked as if the Redskins move paid off..

However, defenses eventually caught up with it and by the end of Griffin's 2012 season, he was taking a beating. Head coach Mike Shanahan (who was also vice president of football operations for Washington) allowed Griffin to play through injuries in the latter part of the season and into the playoffs. The end result was RGIII on the turf against Seattle with his leg dangling at the knee. He's never been the same.

Unlike the Cubs and the Redskins as laid out above, the Sabres are not in the playoff picture so there's absolutely no reason to be playing Ristolainen that much. And what goes for overworking Ristolainen goes for O'Reilly as well.

O'Reilly has a few years on Risto and has a lot more NHL experience so he manages his game much better. But there's a different O'Reilly on the ice when he's fatigued. When on his game he's one of the best two-way centers in the game, one who's relentless in all three zones and can win a faceoff anytime, anywhere on the ice. When he's fatigued he doesn't have quite the same effect.

No doubt O'Reilly will take whatever Bylsma throws at him because he's a hockey player. However he's also one who started the season suffering from back spasms (which may or may not have subsided) and who also went under the knife for an emergency appendectomy on Christmas Day, of which he returned a week early because, he's a hockey player.

There might be one reason to continue overplaying Ristolainen and/or O'Reilly at this point, and that's for Buffalo to win as many games as possible to finish the season. Rumor has it that Bylsma's seat has gotten warm as the Sabres have had a disappointing season and finishing the season on a high note may alter that. But at what cost.

Maybe we should look at what it cost Kerry Wood and RGIII.


With Fedun and Franson joining Falk and Dmitry Kulikov on the injured list, the Sabres recalled two defensemen from Rochester today. Casey Nelson (2016, FA) and Brady Austin (2012, 193rd overall) have joined the team in Detroit.

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