The Buffalo Sabres crossed another item off the to-do list Thursday night, re-signing center Zemgus Girgensons to a one-year contract worth $1.15 million. It's a fair sum for a player who found himself playing more of a support role on the team this past year and with the elite talent Buffalo has rising up, that's most likely where Girgensons will find himself from here on out.
Girgensons' mission for 2016-17 will be to prove that he deserves a long-term deal with the team and there's no reason to doubt the hard-edged fan favorite, assuming expectations are calibrated down from what they were in the past, when the youngster was seen as a potential captain and second-line center.
Buffalo's mission on the other hand, shifts squarely on another young player. One who does require a long-term contract now.
Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen recently told Finnish reporter Sami Hoffren that he didn't expect to be re-signed by the Sabres before the World Cup of Hockey started. And while that may make some Sabres fans nervous, it shouldn't: based on Ristolainen's body of work so far, he should be looking at a big money, long-term deal – and those aren't always quick procedures. So what is Ristolainen worth?
Luckily, there has been a spate of elite young defensemen who have signed new contracts recently and that's important because the market changes so quickly.
On the highest end, you have Florida's Aaron Ekblad, who recently signed an eight-year extension worth $7.5 million per season, which will kick in for the 2017-18 campaign. Ekblad is unquestionably one of the Panthers' most important players and for my money, most likely their next captain. He ranked second on the team in ice time this past year (21:40, only the departed Brian Campbell logged more) and first in points among defensemen with 36 in 78 games. Florida won the division thanks to a pretty well-rounded team.
Buffalo is still rebuilding. The Sabres were better this past season, but still objectively bad, finishing 23rd overall. So the stakes for Ristolainen were lower than with Ekblad, but it's worth noting that Ristolainen had better numbers.
The big Finnish kid played an insane 25:16 per game for Buffalo, leading the team by a wide margin (nearly three minutes more than Zach Bogosian) and ranking top-10 in the NHL. Ristolainen's 41 points in 82 games was also tops among Sabres blueliners, though half came on the power play (only 25 percent of Ekblad's points came with the man advantage). So no doubt, Ristolainen is very good and will only get better as the team around him improves. Ekblad's possession numbers are much better, but so were the Panthers – Ristolainen played tougher minutes in Buffalo. Ekblad also won the Calder Trophy and was named to the All-Rookie Team however, neither of which Ristolainen can claim.
How about a player in a similar team situation, then? Morgan Rielly recently re-upped with the Maple Leafs and Toronto was worse than Buffalo in the standings. Rielly's new contract was worth $5 million per year for six years. That's a good deal for Toronto in the short-term, but it's also worth noting that Rielly gets to unrestricted free agency faster than if he had signed an eight-year deal.
Rielly had much better possession numbers than Ristolainen, in similar situations. But Ristolainen played a lot more and produced more offense (Rielly's average TOI was 23:13 and he put up 36 points in 82 games).
Oh, and there's no way we're going bridge deal here. Ristolainen is the unquestioned cornerstone of Buffalo's defense now and in the future – you lock him up now or pay through the nose in two years. A summer in which, mind you, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart also need new contracts. A situation I'm sure GM Tim Murray would prefer to avoid.
So let's assume Ristolainen goes long-term. I feel like in the end, he'll get less than Ekblad, but more than Rielly. There are so many factors that it's hard to put a definite price tag on it, but would $6 million over seven years work? It'll be fun to see the final number once it gets done.
And don't worry, Sabres fans – it will get done.