When Brendan Gallagher fired the puck past Carter Hutton to give the Canadiens a 5-3 lead over the Sabres on Saturday night, Rasmus Ristolainen was tagged with yet another minus. He would finish the night with a minus-three rating, extending his league-worst plus/minus to -42 on the season.
Plus/minus is very far from a perfect stat. Players will get frequently a plus for a play they weren’t involved in and they’ll get a minus when they didn’t do anything wrong. Bus riders on good teams will be the benefactors of their teammates’ strong play and those who play on bad teams will be punished for the opposite. But, in the case of Ristolainen, his league-leading -42 rating is an indicator of how much value he bleeds defensively.
Rumours have been swirling all year around Buffalo’s so-called No. 1 defenceman. He was a prime candidate to get moved at the deadline, and now his name is showing up in rumours in Edmonton as the Oilers seek a top-pairing defender who can produce offence.
sorry but this isn't new news. Trading Nuge? There are lots of teams looking for centres but I agree you don't trade a C for a winger. You trade a C for a top pairing D which is why an RNH for Buffalo's Ristolainen scenario is out there. https://t.co/SKYB5wBtjU— Jim Matheson (@NHLbyMatty) March 25, 2019
I know this is Jim Matheson just spitballing so this isn’t a legitimate rumour or anything, but the idea of the Oilers acquiring Ristolainen is something I’ve seen thrown out there way too many times. Many suggest he’s the top-pairing, right-handed, offence-producing, defenceman the Oilers need. He’s two of those things, right-handed and offence-producing, but he isn’t a top-pairing defender.
Ristolainen was selected eighth overall by the Sabres in the 2013 draft, one spot behind Darnell Nurse. He broke into the league quickly, splitting his post-draft season with the Sabres and their AHL team in Rochester. In his third professional season, Ristolainen put up 41 points in 81 games for the Sabres while averaging 25 minutes per game. It was good enough to warrant the team signing him to a six-year deal worth $5.4 million annually, signalling that he was the Sabres’ No. 1 defenceman moving forward.
At a glance, you can easily see why the Sabres viewed him as that guy. He’s big, he skates well, he has a booming shot from the point, he’s got a mean streak and isn’t afraid to throw a hit, and he puts up points and munches big minutes. All of the traditional boxes are checked off. But if you dig a little deeper, you see something completely different.
The Sabres have routinely been a better team throughout Ristolainen’s career when he watches from the bench than when he’s on the ice. The difference this season is particularly dramatic. The Sabres have a positive shot attempt and goal differential at even strength with Ristolainen on the bench and the numbers completely torpedo with him on the ice.
Information courtesy of Travis Yost. Source.
Of course, this doesn’t all mean that Ristolainen is a terrible, useless player. We have a similar situation here with Kris Russell. If Russell is playing on the team’s top pair, getting fed 22 minutes a night against top competition, he’s going to get buried. But if he’s on the third pair, playing 17 or 18 minutes a game, he’s just fine. Ristolainen is a player playing over his head and his underlying numbers reflect that.
So if the Oilers were to trade a player like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to acquire Ristolainen, they wouldn’t be filling the hole on the right side of the top pair. Realistically, they would be acquiring a second-pairing defenceman who could play on their power play.
I honestly don’t hate the idea of going after Ristolainen. As I said above, he’s got the tools, but he’s in over his head in his current top-pairing role. While his $5.4 million annual price tag is a little steep for his ideal role as a second-pairing guy, he’s actually a good buy-low option given the miserable season he’s had. Still, this isn’t the type of player you trade Ryan Nugent-Hopkins for.
While Ristolainen is in the midst of putting up the worst plus/minus in the NHL, Nugent-Hopkins is having the best season of his career. With a goal against the Blue Jackets last week, Nugent-Hopkins set a new career-high with 25 goals on the season. He also set a new career high earlier this year with 61 points. In his eighth NHL season, the former first-overall pick is finally becoming that excellent two-way centre who got compared to the likes of Pavel Datsyuk when he was drafted.
There’s no doubt the Oilers have a need for a right-shot defender who can produce offence. They also have a need for high-quality forwards and Nugent-Hopkins is one of three they actually have on their roster. If the Oilers are going to trade one of those three forwards (I can tell you Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl aren’t going to be moved), they better be getting somebody much, much better than Rasmus Ristolainen back. This organization can’t afford another Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson deal.