Defenseman--Rasmus Ristolainen DOB: October 27, 1994 (Age, 24)
Draft: 2013, 1st round (8th-overall)
How acquired: Drafted by Buffalo
Last contract signed: October 11, 2016, 6yr./$32.4 million
Final year of contract: 2021-22
2018-19- Stats: 78 games | 5 goals | 38 assists | 43 points | -41 | 24:38 ATOI
Buffalo Career Stats: 424 games | 36 goals | 158 assists | 198 points | 24:24 ATOI
What we wrote preseason: Ristolainen (selected eighth overall, 2013) is entering the prime of his career and has played a lot of hard minutes along the way. Over the past three seasons Ristolainen has averaged 26:04 ranking him fourth in the league behind Erik Karlsson (Ott,) Ryan Suter (MIN) and Drew Doughty (LAK.) That much ice-time is too much ice-time for him and it affected his overall game but neither coach had much of a choice considering the defense they had to work with.
Having said all that, the addition of Rasmus Dahlin on the back end changes a lot of things for the team and for Ristolainen. The Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup teams were anchored by a d-tandem of two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith and his sidekick Brent Seabrook and it's not too far-fetched to think that with less of a role, Ristolainen could be Buffalo's version of Seabrook to Dahlin's Keith.
What we wrote mid-season: The 24 yr. old "Angry Finn" struggled to start the season and his negative plus/minus rating was amongst the worst on the team. But something happened along the way and we're starting to see the emergence of the player he was drafted for. "Risto" could always skate well for a player of his size and is at his best when he joins the rush and works the offensive zone. He's been showing a very high confidence-level in those abilities with the way he's taking control and he's also been adding to those positive traits by playing with a load of sandpaper while leading the team with 116 hits, nearly double the next player on the Sabres. Although he may never be Bill Hajt from a defensive standpoint, having a 6'4" 215 lb. d-man heading up ice with a head of steam who possesses enough skill to both set up and finish makes for an intriguing weapon on the Sabres blueline. Ristolainen leads Sabres defensemen in all offensive categories with four goals and 20 assists while his 24 points is tied for 13th in the NHL amongst defensemen. His average time on ice of 25:42 is once again top-five in the league.
Impressions on his play this year: Ristolainen has always logged first-pairing, work-horse minutes for the Sabres and this year was no different. Over the past four seasons both coaches, Dan Bylsma and Phil Housley, said they wanted to pare back his minutes but neither really did, or felt they could until the second half of this season when Housley reigned them in. Ristolainen went from 25:42 ATOI pre-Christmas break and finished the season at 24:38, his lowest since his rookie campaign.
Unfortunately for the big Finn, despite putting up solid offensive numbers from the back-end, the number that sticks out, and has stuck out throughout his career thus far, is his plus/minus which was a league-worst minus-41. It's a number that leaves even non-plus/minus believers aghast. However, in an effort to frame said number a little better, perhaps we might want to take into consideration that Ristolainen was on the ice for a total of 16 short-handed/empty net goals against which count against the plus/minus rating. Take it for what it is but those are mostly team breakdowns and/or desperation situations.
Having said that, Ristolainen has been in a major cluster-fart in Buffalo ever since he turned pro and it looks as if it's wearing on him. He's trained his body for the rigors of the NHL but being a part of losing teams, including two last place teams over the past five seasons, would be a mental strain on anyone, especially the team leader in minutes. As a player, we've seen glimpses of greatness in his offensive game, like him schooling San Jose's Brent Burns this year, but not enough of them over the course of his career. We've also seen him use his size when clearing the crease and some sandpaper as well, but not enough of it. His mental lapses in the d-zone are well documented but you can also say, especially the last two seasons, that the defense has been a disaster.
It wouldn't be surprising to see Ristolainen and the team part ways via a trade this off season in a move that might benefit him more than the team. He's got a lot to offer but his role and the toll playing for the Sabres has taken no him screams "fresh start."
Questions moving forward: Has he played his last season in Buffalo? What's his value on the trade market? If he comes back, can a new head coach place him in a position to succeed? Can he ever succeed in Buffalo? Is Tampa Bay, against whom he played some of his best hockey, a potential landing spot for him? If so, how much do they like him and feel they need him? How many other teams might be interested in his services?