Throughout the year, Sabres coach Dan Bylsma has had Rasmus Ristolainen with several different defensive partners. Some of those changes have been due to injuries on the back end, while others were just the coach trying to find the right combination to unlock Risto’s potential. So far this season, three defensemen have seen significant ice time being paired with the young Finnish blueliner; Josh Gorges, Dmitry Kulikov, and Jake McCabe. With Cody Franson out for the next 2-3 weeks after blocking a shot on Thursday, Coach Bylsma has had to juggle his D pairings again. We just learned today that 55 will once again be paired with McCabe for tonight’s very important matchup with the Leafs. That’s a good thing. Ristolainen’s best games have come when he could look to his left and see number 29, as you’ll see from my analysis below. Tonight will be the 20th game that 55 and 29 are paired together.
The chart below from hockeyviz.com shows the time each of the Sabres defensemen have spent on the ice with Rasmus Ristolainen:
Using the chart above, we can look at Ristolainen’s game by game production based on the defenseman he was partnered with the most:
Ristolainen’s point production and postive plus/minus probably jump out at you the most. Seventeen points in nineteen games is a healthy pace, nearly a point a game. As we said earlier, Rasmus has had his best games of the season with McCabe as his partner. Additionally, when paired with McCabe he is a +6 on the year, while he is -12 when being paired with either Gorges or Kulikov.
Here is Ristolainen’s Game by Game TVA for the season. TVA stands for Total Value Added and is my player performance calculation. It includes much more than just points and plus/minus. It also takes into consideration other important measurables, such as shots on goal, hits, blocked shots, penalties drawn/taken, goals for and against on ice, etc. So this looks at Risto’s overall production, beyond just the points he amasses.
Ristolainen’s game really started to take off around game 25. From there, he enjoyed a 6-8 game stretch where he played his best hockey of the year. Jake McCabe was the defenseman riding shotgun for Rasmus during that entire stretch. For whatever reason, after that stretch Bylsma decided to split them up. He put Kulikov on the top line with Risto. That experiment only lasted 3 games. He then tried Bogosian with Rasmus for one game. After that didn’t work, he reunited McCabe and Ristolainen. They stayed together and played well until McCabe went down with an injury. Bylsma was was again forced to pair somebody else with Ristolainen. He tried Taylor Fedun one game, and then went back to Kulikov. Upon McCabe’s return to the lineup, he decided to continue with 77 and 55 as his top pairing until today.
Jake McCabe seems to be a partner that suits 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. You can see the logic behind each of those pairs, but they just haven’t worked out. Gorges is supposed to be your stay at home solid d-man, so pairing him with 55 would give Risto the license to jump into the play and create offensively. Sounds like a good complement to Risto’s game. Unfortunately, it appears that Gorges days as a shutdown defenseman may have come to an end. Kulikov was brought in to be a top pair or second pair guy, so why not let him run with your horse. But it doesn’t appear that Dmitry has shaken off the nagging backside injury that he’s been dealing with all season, and that may be limiting his game. For whatever reason, when Ristolainen is paired with Kulikov, he plays average at best. 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. Now they’ve been reunited by coach Bylsma and it’s time for them to shine, together.
For all of your Buffalo Sabres stat nuggets in 140 characters or less, follow me on Twitter, @SabresStats.
LET’S GO BUFFALO!