Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Trading RNH for Rasmus Ristolainen would be a terrible idea

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

  • Jason Gregor

    RNH is also a career-worst -15. Yet he is having a career-best offensive season. What does it mean? Is it possible for a player to be good offensively, not terrible defensively, yet still have a bad +/-?

    RNH is a team worst -15 among forwards and second worst on team behind Larsson. I’d be leery of +/-, and Ristolainen plays more minutes than other Sabres the past four years, by a long shot. He had to face top players more often. Many things to consider, but I wouldn’t see this deal even close to Hall/Larsson. RNH isn’t as good as Hall and Ristolainen is better than Larsson. I wouldn’t see a trade involving these two being one-for-one, I would see it as a package deal. Something along lines of what Carolina/Calgary did last year.

      • Jason Gregor

        You do realize RNH’s most common linemate this year was Connor McDavid. He played 374 minutes with him. 100 more than any other player. He played 35% of his 5×5 minutes with McDavid. And teams trade good players all the time. Hamilton, Jones, Weber, Subban, Seguin, Hall, etc.

        • Towers-of-dub

          I like articles like this. 2 lousy teams trading players to each other without considering that those players may well be part of the reason the teams have been lousy since they entered the league.

        • AJ88

          On your annual trade RNH possibility again. You’ve been doing the same commentary every year the Oilers are out of the playoffs. Maybe give the same space for Lucic and his great stats.

    • Gravis82

      a cheaper way to get a top pairing D man who will be ready when the team is ready is to just draft one, or draft a forward and trade them later for D. Lets look back to 2015 NHL draft….barzal, chabot, connor, beauviller, Konecny, Aho…still all on the board, and picked either at or not soon after,each of the Oilers picks (which they traded). How many of those are *already* nhl all stars? The answer is 4.

      Debrincat was also on the board in the second round of 2016, and was , oh, just Connor McDavids linemate in junior. Passed on that one as well. Circle back three years later and he has 28 goals last year and 36 this year.

      Any of those players could not be traded for a very very good defenseman.

      I think I found the problem.

      Thomas Chabot was the pick that year for us and they blew it. There is no choice but to restart the process one last time.

      • Arfguy

        I would not do that trade. If you are trading RNH, you should not add anything else. Ristolainen is not worth a one-for-one for RNH and never has been. The Oilers need cap space, so adding Ristolainen’s cap hit and Reinhart’s $3.65 million AAV while also trading a first round is just poor asset management.

    • CaptainCanada94

      Cannot trash this comment enough. RNH is a sure thing, bonafide two way center. Ristolainen is a crap shoot that maybe he’s top pairing, maybe he is second pairing. Did we not learn from the Hall trade? It would be an absolute shame for the Oilers to trade Hall+RNH for 2 fringe top pairing defencemen. Oilers sure like to gamble on long-shots… #smartestguysintheroom

      • Glencontrolurstik

        I whole heartedly agree 100%. We keep RNH, full-stop. If for nothing more than his work ethic, attitude on & off the ice in the community. And the biggest reason, the Oilers owe it to him. I believe we are closer than most people think & RNH has gone through hell & back for this team with nary a complaint… There is a ton of value in that for a team that is trying to get back on track. Nuge is not part of the problem here. We have other things of value that could be released, but not Nuge, please. Plus, would what the Oilers get for Nuge really beat the value he gives the team?

        • CaptainCanada94

          Any trade involving RNH needs to be a slam-dunk/ homerun. Risto is the furthest thing from that. AKA find a GM desperate like Chiarelli was for us. Sabres GM should be in a position of zero leverage…

        • Glencontrolurstik

          Yeah, looking past just the points, Lucic’s optics on the Oilers are 2X what Hall ever brought… Plus, if we ever made the playoffs, we would all see more value in his play. (the Leafs are gonna wish they had a Lucic type on their team this post season.)
          The area that Lucic hurts this team is his salary. But even in this area, I’d much rather have Looch, than “me-me” Hall on my team at the same money.

          • Arfguy

            Lucic does not add anything to the Oilers anymore. His play overall is ineffective, regardless of his salary.

            Name me one game where Lucic was the difference maker. If you want to say the game where Lucic scored two against the Buffalo Sabres in a 7-2 victory, I would like to remind you that Zack Kassian scored the winning goal and Connor McDavid added the insurance to make it 4-2 at that point.

    • nbandito

      Nuge has even more value to us than simply carrying the second line and playing against top opposition every night. He is effective on the PK, fierce on the PP and invaluable in OT. You do not trade a player like that unless it’s a for a ‘guarantee’ player. The Nuge is far too valuable to us.

    • aspin

      Jason, let’s look at this objectively. Does Risto play defence alone against many of the top players? He is -42. the next lowest plus/minus on defence is -13. That is pretty telling. 5 x 5 he is giving up 42 goals more goals when he is on the ice than he is generating. It obviously is happening no matter who he plays with and it would be really interesting to dig into if the players he has played with are doing significantly better without him as opposed to with him. At first glance based on the +/- it would indicated yes and by a wide wide margin. As I stated below, if we trade Nuge for a defenceman we have 2 forwards signed that have more than 14 goals. Ouch. Really? We want to deplete 20 goal scorers for defencemen? Who would the defenceman pass it to that can actually pick up a pass? It blows my mind that we would take an organizational weakness (forwards) to add to an organizational strength (defence) and a significantly overpaid defenceman that has the same amount of points of Darnell Nurse who brings many more assets to the rink than Risto does and makes a portion of the salary that Risto does. Not to mention Bouchard and Jones waiting in the wings.

      Also, as mentioned, we look at the depth of centre as a bad thing until one of Draisaitl or McDavid goes down for a number of weeks. Who would be the second line centre? They don’t even have a third line centre. That would be the season right there. Just one more season down the drain and watching Risto set all time highs in minus.

      • Arfguy

        Bravo @aspin. Thank you for taking at least an objective look at this completely ridiculous suggestion.

        Under no circumstances should we consider trading RNH. Draisaitl and McDavid are locks, just like RNH should be. Going forward, the core should be McDavid, Draisaitl, RNH and Nurse.

    • Anton CP

      Just read through the replies to you…what I read is bunch of the Oilers fans overrating their beloved player again. You are right about the truth of RNH that he in fact holds very little value in the league.

      What I am looking for from this trade has nothing to do with players values since they are about equal, I am looking at if Ristolainen will help to solve the issue with the Oilers. I don’t think that Ristolainen will help the Oilers because of his play style.

  • The Oilers have three forwards that consistently score I don’t know how trading one of them is even remotely an option. It doesn’t make any sense, but then again, this is the Oilers. The focus should be to clear cap space to bring in more skill, not steal from Peter to pay Paul.

    • Jason Gregor

      They need to improve their puck moving on backend. They give up way too many goals. They spend too much time in their own zone. New GM can’t be fearful of trading away a good player. He just has to be astute enough to ensure he is bringing in an equally good player, or hopefully a few times, one who is slightly better.

        • Jason Gregor

          Be aware. Don’t be fearful or nothing will happen. I’m not saying you trade RNH away for a bad player, but if the right deal presents itself I’d strongly look at it. If he can get you a solid puck moving RD I’d do it.

          • Rock11

            Theoretically I agree but isn’t Risto just an older, more expensive version of Evan Bouchard. Why would you trade one of the only scoring forwards you have when just last year you used your first round pick on exactly the player you would now be acquiring. If significant cap relief or other asset was coming back in the deal I might be convinced otherwise but right now the organizational strength(if there is one) is on D. This team will not be a cup contender next year so lets please not try and rush the developmental curve again or we may end up with another Reinhart deal.

          • rnj

            Gregor you mentioned wanting a 3rd C and skilled winger for Nuge, who did you have in mind? It seems teams who trade a more skilled player for several less skilled players seem to lose by diluting talent

          • The voice of reason

            If you trade away reliable 2-way C then you should expect to get not only a struggling Risto but in addition at least a very decent winger. The only reason why the Oilers should even faintly cosnider this is because they already have two strong C’s – but still please make the other GM pay for what he gets !

          • aspin

            Chia’s famous last words before the Hall trade, Lucic signing, Eberle trade, Strome trade, etc. If you trade RNH for Risto we then have 20 players signed who have more than 14 goals. The Oilers need to add forwards not subtract from the core they have. The other point a lot of people forget is that it looks all rosie to have 3 centres but the ability to move a centre to wing is a lot better than having two centres and having one of them down for a significant portion of the year and not have anyone who would be a top 9 player playing centre.

          • Gravis82

            You cannot trade your good players. Pretty simple to see that you need them. You trade them only when you have too many in one area. We absolutely do not have too many, in any area. You have to draft them, and then keep them if they are NHL players. When you find better players, push them down the lineup. Add free agents at the very end when you have won your division without them. If you cant draft your core you dont deserve to win a cup anyway. Oilers need to draft two all start in the next 5 years or they never win with McDavid, and that is the brutal reality. They already missed out on 3 fantastic players in the last two drafts that are now all starts or 1st line players.

      • Gravis82

        This kind of panic mentality got us here in the first place. Teams dont trade those defenseman. You just have to draft them. Or you need to use analytics to find D like this who are extremely good at moving the put but are undervalued because they simply cannot score. These players should be on your bottom pair as the limit the damage of poor 3rd line and 4line players