OPINION: Why trading Ristolainen should still be a priority

With the salary cap being an issue heading into the 2020-21 season, a potential return for a Rasmus Ristolainen trade may not look so appealing

The Buffalo Sabres have already been quite active this offseason towards re-tooling the team ahead of the upcoming 2020-21 season.

General manager Kevyn Adams has gone to work in his first offseason in his new role, adding and retaining certain players to his roster. He first traded for second line center Eric Staal from the Minnesota Wild, then re-signed a pair of depth players in Curtis Lazar and Zemgus Girgensons. In free agency, Adams started out with some more depth signings like Tobias Rieder, Matt Irwin and Cody Eakin, but then reeled in a big fish with the surprising signing of left winger Taylor Hall.

Adams' work is not done, however, as he still has some work to do to get restricted free agents Sam Reinhart, Victor Olofsson, Casey Mittelstadt and Linus Ullmark under contract going forward. He also still has the chance to get a player like Dominik Kahun back into the fold after he was not extended a qualifying offer.

As of now, according to CapFriendly.com, the Sabres have a projected salary cap space over $13.645 million. The team currently has 10 forwards under contract, eight defenseman, and just Carter Hutton before you factor in the re-signings of the restricted free agents.

As of right now, it appears as though Adams' focus will be on getting the four restricted free agents under contract, which will get Buffalo's roster to 23 players. After that, Adams' work could be done until the Sabres approach training camp, whenever that is set to get started.

However, that's not where the Buffalo general manager's work should stop.

There's no telling what each restricted free agent is going to earn with their new contract, or what an arbiter is going to award them if they get to their arbitration hearing. However, that money going towards Reinhart, Olofsson and Ullmark at the NHL level will likely get Buffalo dangerously close to the salary cap of $81.5 million.

The salary cap for the 2020-21 season remains at the flat rate of $81.5 million as a result of the lost revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even with the Seattle Kraken coming into the picture for the 2021-22 season, there's no telling how much the salary cap will increase in the coming couple of years.

If the Sabres are going to put together their roster for the upcoming season and want to have some of that "cap flexibility" that Kevyn Adams has mentioned this offseason, it would not be beneficial for Buffalo to only leave themselves with, what could be, less than $1 million on the salary cap.

So how do the Sabres clear more space on the cap before the 2020-21 season begins?

Let's revisit the idea of trading defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen.

The 25-year-old defenseman is about to enter his eighth season in the National Hockey League with the Sabres, where he's set to count $5.4 million against the cap. He has two years remaining on his current deal before he is set to become an unrestricted free agent following the 2021-22 season.

It has been known for a while, even by Ristolainen, that the trade chatter surrounding him has been deafening. However, it almost seems, at this point, like the Sabres are going to be stuck with the Finnish defenseman whether it's due to a lack of interest from other teams or the asking price is just too high.

It goes without saying that the Sabres value Ristolainen higher than most, given the fact he was Buffalo's first round pick (eighth overall) in the 2013 NHL Draft. In 493 career games for the Sabres, Ristolainen has been relatively productive offensively, serving in a top-four role with 42 goals and 185 assists for 227 points.

However, it may be time now to accept the cruel fate of this COVID-19 world and realize that what was once thought to be fair value for Ristolainen is now no longer available.

On Monday, the Vegas Golden Knights were on the verge of signing free agent defenseman Alex Pietrangelo to a massive seven-year, $61.6 million, but they needed to make some room on their salary cap to accommodate the signing.

In a corresponding move, Vegas was forced to trade defenseman Nate Schmidt to the Vancouver Canucks to clear his $5.95 million cap hit.

The return? A third round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft.

How good is Schmidt compared to Ristolainen?

Nate Schmidt:

Schmidt made his NHL debut in the 2013-14 season with the Washington Capitals. but he was eased into the league in Washington after being an undrafted free agent out of the University of Minnesota.

In four seasons in Washington, Schmidt was more of a bottom-four defenseman that averaged just 16:34 of ice time. However, he managed to get plenty of playing time in the offensive zone, putting up eight goals and 35 assists for 43 points in 200 games. While he was never much of a power play presence for the Capitals, he did average 57.4% of zone starts in the offensive end.

In 2017, the Capitals exposed Schmidt in the NHL Expansion Draft, where he was claimed by the Golden Knights.

Schmidt's role in Vegas became that of a top-four defenseman and he immediately excelled. In his three seasons with the Golden Knights, the 29-year-old blue liner went on to score 21 goals and register 76 assists for 97 points in 196 games. His average ice time increased to nearly 22 minutes a night, he served as a key contributor on the power play, while also being a reliable presence in both ends of the ice. Schmidt went from averaging more zone start times in the offensive zone to becoming a reliable two-way defenseman with an average of 52.4% defensive zone starts, while also maintaining good possession numbers and other advanced stats.

Schmidt RAPM chart 2019-20
Schmidt RAPM chart 2017-20

Rasmus Ristolainen:

Like Schmidt, Ristolainen made his NHL debut in the 2013-14 season with the Sabres, but almost stepped into an immediate top-four role on the blue line after his first season in North America. He primarily spent his rookie season with the Rochester Americans in the American Hockey League, but then made the immediate jump to the NHL and into the fire that was a terrible hockey team in the 2014-15 season.

In his seven seasons with the Sabres, Ristolainen has averaged more than 24 minutes of ice time, which has been way too much for a defenseman of his status. This past season, head coach Ralph Krueger limited his average ice time to just 22:48, but even that was often still too much ice time.

During his tenure in Buffalo, Ristolainen has seen plenty of zone time starts being in the defensive zone (53.9%) at even strength, and he has also been utilized as a key contributor on the power play, penalty kill and in other important game situations in the past. However, where he differs from Schmidt throughout his career is his possession numbers and advanced stats.

Ristolainen RAPM charts 2019-20
Ristolainen RAPM charts 2017-20

Yes, the argument can absolutely be made that the Golden Knights were just trying to get the best value available at the time to clear that cap space for the Pietrangelo signing. However, looking at the facts, it can be said that Schmidt brings more to the table overall than Ristolainen when it comes to a complete defensive game.

Can Ristolainen get the Sabres a better return than Schmidt got the Golden Knights if they continue to wait? It's certainly possible, but other teams can look at what Vegas got for Schmidt and use that to their advantage in trade talks. In addition, Ristolainen has already been on the market and shopped around for some time now. How much better is the return really going to get from here?

Ristolainen has relatively been the same player for the Sabres since he joined the team full-time in the 2014-15 season. He's a physical defenseman with an offensive upside, but, often times, his presence in the defensive zone has made him more of a liability than a solution. When given less responsibilities and less ice time that a bottom-four defenseman may get, he seems to respond better and play more comfortable. However, on this Sabres team, he's had to be looked at as a top-four defenseman, which has hurt the team more than anything.

What Ristolainen has that always seems to be a hot commodity around the league is that he's a right-shot defenseman. Teams always seem to clamor for the right-handed shot, and the Sabres have a number of those defensemen on the roster right now.

If a team values Ristolainen and it pulls the trigger on a potential trade for his stature or their need for a right-handed defenseman who they see can be a serviceable top-four defender, then maybe the Sabres can still get good value.

Sure, no one wants to just give up Ristolainen for just a draft pick(s), similar to what Vegas got for Schmidt. Who wants to see Ristolainen go to a team for cheap and then excel with a club that knows how to properly use him?

However, when focusing on the roster and what the Sabres can do to improve their lineup elsewhere, it may be a move worth making, and one that's worth taking that risk.

With the current projected cap space the Sabres have, getting a team to take Ristolainen's entire cap hit would increase the cap space to just over $19 million. That's more room to not only comfortably get your remaining restricted free agents signed, but also make another potentially impacting move or two for your roster.

The Sabres seem to believe that they are set at the center position with Eichel, Staal, Eakin and Lazar likely to play in that order. While Eichel and Staal are certainties at the top-two center positions, there are still a couple of other options that would be better at third line center, allowing Eakin to assume a more suited role as the fourth line center. Players like Erik Haula and Mikael Granlund are still available on the free agent market, and both can likely be had at a reasonable price that will not put the Sabres in a bind with the cap.

Don't forget Kahun and possibly bringing him back into the fold. Krueger spoke highly of Kahun in the offseason, after Buffalo acquired the German forward at the NHL Trade Deadline from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Krueger not only likes Kahun and how he fits into the culture of his locker room, he also believes that there is the opportunity for a potential move back to center for the 25-year-old, who played down the middle while excelling in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga in Germany with EHC München.

Buffalo could also look to add another piece on the blue line to comfortably allow defenseman Brandon Montour to return to playing on his natural right side of the blue line. A left-handed defenseman like Ben Hutton may be a valuable add on the back end to allow a move like this to happen.

Not to mention, some added salary cap space could allow the team to add another goaltending option to go along with Ullmark if they see fit that Carter Hutton is not the answer going forward. However, it seems like the Sabres are content on moving forward with the goaltending tandem in Buffalo.

One other question that is likely to come up if the Sabres were to trade Ristolainen is: Who steps in to replace him in the short- and long-term?

Enter Will Borgen.

While Borgen may not have the same offensive impact from the blue line as Ristolainen can provide, the 23-year-old is a very solid two-way defenseman who skates just as well and can bring the same physical tenacity in the defensive end. While his NHL action has been limited to just four games in the 2018-19 season, Borgen has proven time-and-time again in Rochester that he can be relied upon in a greater capacity and can confidently handle the workload in all areas of the ice.

In addition, he still has one year remaining on his rookie contract as a cap hit of just $864,166.

Borgen would certainly have to come in and earn his roster spot on the blue line in Buffalo, but he is a player going into the 2020-21 season that is on the cusp of breaking the full-time NHL roster.

So how could the Sabres' defensive roster look come next season if they were to find a way to just move Ristolainen? There are a number of potential looks to the defensive group, but here's one that may be best suited in this case:

Dahlin - Miller
McCabe - Jokiharju
Montour - Borgen

We'll see the direction that Adams and the rest of the Sabres front office take as the offseason continues, but the idea of trading Ristolainen, even if the return is not the greatest, may have its benefits towards making the team better going forward.

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