You know there’s an obvious logjam on a team’s roster when, mere minutes after it acquires a player, another player on the team starts trending on Twitter. That’s what happened Tuesday when the Buffalo Sabres acquired right-shot defenseman Henri Jokiharju from the Chicago Blackhawks for right winger Alexander Nylander. The name that immediately blew up on Twitter: Rasmus Ristolainen, of course. Hockey fans are smart enough to recognize the asymmetry of the Sabres’ roster now. So are other NHL GMs. Sabres GM Jason Botterill should thus expect his phone to ring all summer with calls on Ristolainen.
The first domino towards possibly nudging Ristolainen out of Buffalo actually came months ago. It was the Brandon Montour trade in February. The Sabres landed a 25-year-old puck moving maven with the clear intent of deploying him as a long-term, top-four option. Then came the Colin Miller acquisition from the cap-crunched Vegas Golden Knights two weeks ago. Miller’s sheltered minutes were well documented in Vegas and even in his Boston days, but he crushed his competition in that deployment and brings strong power-play acumen. He’s ready for an opportunity in an expanded role. Montour and Miller both happen to be right-handed shots.
So is Jokiharju. And while the sample size is small thus far, Jokiharju, drafted 29th overall in 2017, showed monstrous potential in 2018-19. He acquitted himself pretty well playing with Duncan Keith, won a gold medal with Team Finland at the World Junior Championship and gained additional pro experience in the second half of the season in the AHL, where the Hawks sent him so he could play more minutes. It’s obviously no guarantee that Jokiharju’s a world-beater, but the Sabres acquired the kid to play. Yes, he’s on his entry-level contract and is waiver exempt, but Buffalo is ready to start climbing the standings ASAP, and Jokiharju has shown enough to earn an NHL job.
So the Sabres’ vastly improved defense corps boasts Montour, Miller and Jokiharju on the right. Sensational youngster Rasmus Dahlin leads the left side, backed by stay-at-home types Jake McCabe and Marco Scandella, while injured Zach Bogosian, a righty, might be forced to play the left side upon his return from hip surgery. All that, and we haven’t even factored in the blueliner who’s logged the most minutes of any Sabre in the past half decade: Ristolainen.
He looked close to can’t-miss in 2013 when the Sabres nabbed him eighth overall. He had a monstrous reach at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, he moved well for a big guy, and he played with a nasty edge. He scored the tournament-clinching overtime winner for Finland at the 2014 world juniors. It seemed he was on his way to an all-star NHL career and, even when he struggled in his first couple seasons, it could be shrugged off as a kid playing with little help on a bad team.
But that narrative could only insulate Ristolainen for so long. Looking at every 5-on-5 advanced metric over the course of his career, the opposing team has generated significantly more shot attempts, scoring chances, high-danger chances, shots and goals with him on the ice. Over his past three seasons, his four most common defense partners each posted a higher Corsi without him than with him at 5-on-5. That partially reflects Ristolainen always facing the toughest matchups, meaning playing with him is a more difficult assignment, but there’s plenty of evidence overall suggesting he’s been overmatched playing No. 1 minutes in his young career.
It thus stands to reason that, considering the Sabres are loaded on the right side of their blueline now with or without him and he carries a $5.4-million cap hit for three more years, he’s a natural trade candidate.
On the flip side, there’s plenty of reason to want Ristolainen. Yes, he’s often been an analytics whipping boy, but he’s faced tough competition his whole career with a generally weak list of partners. He puts up 40 or more points in his sleep, he’s still just 24, he’s got that great reach and, most importantly, he’s a right-handed shot. It’s entirely possible he flourishes on a better team with a high-quality partner. The Sabres can command a significant return for him. The most logical asking price, assuming Botterill wants to make a “hockey trade,” is a second-line center or a left-shot defenseman of equal or slightly greater value. The ideal scenario would be the Sabres trading for a center and then targeting lefty UFA Jake Gardiner to get the best of both worlds.
So which teams make for intriguing trade partners? These three come to mind:
1. Edmonton Oilers. We don’t know for certain Evan Bouchard is ready for top-four duty yet. Landing Ristolainen would take the pressure off, and the Oilers could dangle Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who makes just $600,000 more than Ristolainen, in a 1-for-1 swap.
2. Winnipeg Jets. The right side of Winnipeg’s blueline is decimated with Jacob Trouba traded to the New York Rangers and Tyler Myers signing with the Vancouver Canucks. The Jets aren’t deep enough at center to dangle Bryan Little, but could they offer Jack Roslovic and more? Nikolaj Ehlers would be a good fit value wise but less so positionally for Buffalo.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bolts’ right side lacks another top-four talent even if lefty Mikhail Sergachev ends up playing there, with the physical Erik Cernak better suited for third-pair work. Tampa’s obviously smashed up against the cap and would need to send out salary. Julien BriseBois has been hesitant to trade Tyler Johnson but, from a financial and positional-need standpoint, he sure would be a dream fit for Buffalo.
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