In terms of production, last year there seemed to be two different Rasmus Ristolainens for the Buffalo Sabres. The first half Risto, and the second half Risto. First Half Risto was a budding superstar and a league leader. A man amongst boys at times, in spite of being just 21 years old. Second Half Risto was good, but not as dominant as his counterpart. First Half Risto earned a big contract extension in the offseason. Second Half Risto just didn’t lose it.
So far this season, we have seen the same. The young Finnish defenseman’s production hasn’t kept up with the early season pace that it started with, for the second year in a row. In fact, as we see from the chart below, Risto’s point production has basically followed the same path as last year, with a fantastic first 30 games and then a fairly substantial cooling off period. Last year that cooling off lasted the rest of the season. It remains to be seen where this year’s campaign will end up.
On December 23rd of this season (after 32 games played), Ristolainen was tied for 4th in NHL defensemen scoring with 23 points. Since then, he has had 8 points in 22 games (tied for 44th in the league over that stretch) and he now sits tied for 11th with 31 points. You may think that this is just a random slow period for Ristolainen, but nearly the exact same thing happened last year. After 32 games last year, he also had 23 points and was tied for 5th in d-man scoring. He then had only 18 more points in the final 50 games of the season to finish with 41 points, 24th in the league. Finishing 24th in the NHL isn’t all that bad, but when you are in the Top 10 to start, it’s a disappointing end result.
But let’s look beyond point production. What about a more comprehensive look at the value that Rasmus adds for the blue and gold. First, we will focus on just this season, and then we will compare it to last season.
If we use my Total Value Added (TVA) calculation, we see that he had a period of about 7 games (the peak from games 25 to 31) where his value was significantly higher than at any other point this season. (TVA is my own calculation of value a player provides. It includes many more measurable things than just points, such as shot attempts, hits, blocked shots, penalties drawn/taken, goals for and against on ice, etc.) Outside of those 6 games, he has actually been fairly consistent. His production since the peak looks pretty similar to before it, even though the points haven’t been there.
Can a similar story be told for last season? Let’s add last year’s data to the above chart.
Not really the same. We didn’t really see that big spike in TVA like we do this year. He had lower lows and not as high of highs. While he had some good games, they weren’t really in the form of the great run that he had this year. Towards the end of last season, Risto started to show the consistency (in terms of TVA) that he has continued this season, with the exception of the aforementioned spike.
Now let’s go back to this season and see if we can figure out why his production spiked and/or why it hasn’t continued. I have three theories that we can explore:
- The extremely high ice times that Risto has endured have worn him down.
- The difference in defensive partners he has had over the season.
- The return of Jack Eichel and the revving up of the Sabres offense as a result of his return.
First, let’s talk about ice time. Rasmus Ristolainen is undoubtedly the horse that Dan Bylsma rides on defense for the Sabres. As we sit today, 54 games into the season, Ristolainen is 4th in the NHL in average TOI at 27:08. That’s a lot of minutes for any defenseman, let alone a 22 year old. Roman Josi is the 2nd youngest defenseman currently in the Top 10 in average TOI, and he is 26 and averaging over two minutes a game less than Ristolainen. That magnitude of ice time is bound to produce some wear and tear on the body. And just maybe a 22 year old doesn’t know how to handle it as well as the wily veterans. If we look at Risto’s TOI trend for the year, we see it is going up, as evidenced by the slight incline in the direction of his 5 game moving average below.
The Sabres have definitely dealt with some injuries on the back end and that has no doubt added to Risto’s TOI. Now that they are healthier (Bogosian being the only regular d-man missing), maybe Rasmus will see a little less time on the ice each game.
What about the defensive partner that Coach Bylsma pairs Ristolainen with. Has that had any impact on Risto’s performance? It certainly has. The table below shows Ristolainen’s production and team record based on which defenseman was the primary pairing for Rasmus that game (Pairings data taken from hockeyviz.com).
Remember that spike in production that we talked about before? That was all with Jake McCabe riding shotgun alongside 55. Can we give all credit to Jake for Risto’s success? No, probably not. But it seemed to be a pairing that suited Ristolainen (and the team, as indicated by their record together) well. The other pairings that Bylsma has tried along the way haven’t worked out nearly as well. Dmitry Kulikov has been the worst pairing for Risto’s production, but being paired with Gorges hasn’t been much better. Bogosian and Fedun only saw ice time with Ristolainen for one game each, so the sample size is way too small to draw any conclusions. What we do know is that Ristolainen’s points per game, TVA, and plus/minus have all been best with Jake McCabe as his partner.
What about Jack Eichel, how does he fit into this conversation? You may wonder why we even mention Jack when we are talking about defensemen. In my opinion, you can’t overstate the impact that Jack Eichel has on the entire Sabres team. Prior to having Eichel in the lineup, the Sabres averaged 1.86 goals per game. In the 33 games since his return, they have averaged 2.85 goals per game, nearly a goal per game higher. Jack’s return to the lineup, in game 22, also roughly coincides with the start of Ristolainen’s big run. It seems that Jack’s return awoke a sleeping offense, and Ristolainen was a benefactor of that. Not only was the team scoring more goals as a whole, but perhaps some of the attention that teams were putting on Rasmus was all of a sudden being put on Jack, leaving the big defenseman with just a little more skating room each night and allowing him to contribute more to the offense.
So where do things go from here? Will Ristolainen see the same trend from last year continue and not be able to match the pace of production he had in the first half of the season? Or will the Sabres number one d-man find a way to get things going again and finish the season in a more promising fashion?
If he does languish in the 2nd half again, who is to blame?
I think there are three potential areas of blame here. Let’s start with Coach Bylsma. He could be to blame for two reasons; his overuse of Rasmus in terms of TOI per game, and the pairings that he puts on the ice for each game. If he continues to play 55 with 77, like he has for the last 8 games, and Risto’s production doesn’t improve, maybe it’s a matter of having him with the wrong guy. His production has clearly been better with McCabe as his running mate.
But let’s not let Tim Murray off the hook here either. You could make the argument that Bylsma’s two sources of blame listed above are actually both the general manager’s fault. If he had a more reliable defensive corps, Bylsma wouldn’t have to lean on Ristolainen so heavily for the monster minutes he does now. And maybe the right defensive partner for Risto isn’t even on this roster. That’s up to Murray to fix. Whether through the trade deadline just around the corner, or in the offseason, bringing in a true Top 2 defenseman to play alongside Risto would obviously benefit Rasmus tremendously.
The last possibility of blame is Ristolainen himself. Maybe he just isn’t playing as well as he was early in the season. It was reported that he came into the season in top physical condition, ready to do battle for the Sabres. He did that. But maybe he hasn’t kept up the physical regimen that got him into that top shape. I don’t know that for certain, but it’s a possibility. Or maybe he feels the pressure of the new contract and just grips the stick a little too tightly sometimes. If he would just go out there and let it fly without thinking as much, maybe his results would be more favorable. Again, those are things only the man himself would know.
Here’s the bottom line. Risto is a beast and he has the potential to be an elite defenseman in this league. In fact, he’s awful close to that level when he is playing at his best. But I think he needs more help. I think there is too much expected of him at this point in his career. He needs another stud defenseman to take two things off his plate; minutes and pressure. If GMTM can go out and somehow find that guy, Risto could settle into a more comfortable yet very productive role for this team. Easier said than done, but that has to be a priority for Mr. Murray.
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LET’S GO BUFFALO!