The Best Options for a Sabres Trade of Rasmus Ristolainen
After looking at the options the Buffalo Sabres have to fix their roster logjam, we have taken the process a step further to identify possible outcomes for our most common prediction: trading Rasmus Ristolainen. It’s arguable that the Sabres have surpluses at both forward and defense but it is undeniable that the team has to do something with their defense. We previously discussed how the team has eleven defensemen and six spots to play them. We concluded that Rasmus Ristolainen was likely the odd man out. We did play out a scenario where he is still on the roster come opening night, but it seems unlikely. Teams around the league have to have come to the same conclusion as we have and are likely checking in with Buffalo to see if they can get their hands on Ristolainen. In this article, we will touch on nine teams that we think could have already checked in on Ristolainen or will if they haven’t already. We have ordered the teams based on the likeliness of a trade between Buffalo and them happening.
Before we discuss the teams that could be in play, we need to discuss our views on Ristolainen. When looking at Ristolainen’s underlying metrics, he performs at the level of a bottom-pair defenseman and that might be generous. However, those metrics likely do not reflect what the Sabres and possibly many other teams place his value at. It is very possible that teams view Ristolainen as a top four defenseman. Throughout our analysis, we consider that the perceived value of Ristolainen may very well be higher than we think it should be. Ultimately, a player’s value is what someone is willing to pay and reports are the Sabres are going to demand that price to be high. We have taken the approach that the price settles somewhere in the middle. Based on our previous article, we concluded that the Sabres would likely be looking for a top-six forward, a left-handed defenseman, or a high-end forward prospect, in that order. With that in mind, we will move into the teams and some players that a trade would likely center around. We should add two caveats. First, we don’t know how teams value certain players. We could be much higher or lower on a given player, especially prospects. Second, we have discussed what we think would be the main parameters of a trade but there is a good chance that other pieces get included from each side for a multitude of reasons.
9. Colorado Avalanche
Once Colorado moved Tyson Barrie, the right side of their defense doesn’t look nearly as strong. Currently, they have Erik Johnson and Cale Makar. If having a balance of right and left shots is important to them, they could look to make another move to achieve that balance. Ristolainen might not be the best fit for them as he and Johnson would become a 2a and 2b. They would then have ~$11M committed to their bottom two right shot defenders. However, the team does have the salary cap space to fit Ristolainen and might consider the move if they feel they can bring Ristolainen in without giving up too valuable of assets. When looking at Colorado’s roster and prospects and considering what the Sabres would likely desire, we think the best Colorado would be willing to offer is one of JT Compher or Tyson Jost, and Ian Cole. If the Sabres can’t find a better offer, they might be better off holding on to Ristolainen. A trade like this creates a bigger logjam of middle-six forwards and doesn’t significantly improve the team anywhere.
8. Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago is another team with an unbalanced left-right blue line. However, it is a problem they recently created with the acquisitions of Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta. On paper and in a vacuum, the Sabres trading Ristolainen to Chicago for one of de Haan or Maatta would make a lot of sense, maybe the most out of any scenario. Either player would be an ideal second-pair left defender for Buffalo and Ristolainen might instantly become Chicago’s best right-handed defender (a scary thought but likely true). The issue here is things don’t happen in a vacuum. Chicago recently acquired both players and if they were going to flip either, they likely would have done so shortly after acquiring them. Chicago and Buffalo also just recently swapped a defender (Henri Jokiharju) for a forward (Alex Nylander) so the optics of them acquiring a right-shot defender from the same team is terrible. We would never say never here but the probability of this trade happening is low. If it did, a straight swap of either de Haan or Maatta makes sense.
7. Vegas Golden Knights
Again, we are touching on a team that just sent a right-handed defender to Buffalo so a trade to get a different one back seems unlikely. However, Vegas has a glaring hole on their right side and with their salary cap situation clearer, Vegas could circle back to Buffalo. In a deal with Vegas, the Sabres would need to salary match or take back more than they send. In this situation, the conversation would likely have to revolve around one of Reilly Smith, Johnathan Marchessault, or Alex Tuch. The Sabres should salivate at the idea of acquiring Tuch but Vegas isn’t likely to do a one for one swap. If a trade fit were there, Smith would likely be the player that makes the most sense. Again, we want to emphasize the unlikeliness of these teams working out another trade that involves a right-shot defenseman. The optics of trading a cheaper, right-handed defensemen to a team and then circling back to the same team and acquiring a more expensive right-handed defensemen, who is arguably a worse player, would make absolutely no sense. If we were strictly looking at roster fits, Vegas might be the most likely scenario but when considering the optics of another trade, they get bumped far down the list.
6. Detroit Red Wings
On paper, the Detroit Red Wings could really use a right shot defenseman. They are a young, rebuilding team, so a 24 year old Rasmus Ristolainen would fit well when considering the path of the team. The only problem that we see with these teams matching up for a deal is that there are not many assets that Detroit would be willing to move that would interest Buffalo in a trade for Ristolainen. The one name that sticks out is forward Andreas Athanasiou. Starting a few seasons ago, there were trade rumors around Athanasiou. However, they seem to have cooled over the past year or so. That makes sense considering he is a 24-year-old forward who just put up a 30-goal season this past year. He has become the type of player that Detroit should be holding on to. Pair that with the fact that Detroit now has a new decision-making group in the front office and it seems unlikely that they’d be looking to move Athanasiou. However, that also could be a wild card as new GM in Steve Yzerman could be looking to put his own stamp on the roster. Overall, we believe that it would be tough for these teams to find a deal, especially as division rivals. There could be a fit though, so never say never.
5. Anahiem Ducks
While looking at the Anaheim Ducks, the recent trade factor (similar to our Vegas analysis) appears. During the past season, the Sabres acquired Brandon Montour from Anaheim. While this is similar to the Vegas situation, there are two key differences. First, the amount of time that has gone by may make it more likely a deal could happen. Second, the Ducks got a good return for Montour (Guhle and a 1st round pick). Vegas did not get a great return for Miller. The Ducks getting an adequate return might make them more comfortable with making another trade. Anaheim is in need of a top four right handed defenseman, as Josh Manson is the only option on their current roster. There are two current NHL players that could interest Buffalo in Rickard Rakell and Ondrej Kase. Both players have shown they can be capable top six options. Rakell is a 26 year old forward capable of playing both center and the wing. He also has two 30 goal seasons and is on a cheap contract. Kase, a 23-year-old winger, was injured this past season, but produced 11 goals and 20 points in 30 games. Rakell would be the first ask, but the Sabres would do well to acquire either player. While those two are great for a rebuilding team like Anaheim, they may be willing to trade from their forward depth in order to strengthen their defense with a long-term option like Ristolainen.
Another way to possibly acquire Ristolainen would be to use prospects. While we think Anaheim is unlikely to do this because of their status as a rebuilding club, it is important to highlight the prospects Buffalo would be interested in. This group includes center Isac Lundestrom, center Sam Steel, winger Maxime Comtois, and winger Max Jones. While some of these prospects may be more available than others in a trade for Ristolainen, these four would be of interest to the Sabres.
4. Edmonton Oilers
The Edmonton Oilers have been looking for top four, right shot defenseman for a few years now. There have been rumors in the past linking them to Rasmus Ristolainen. On paper, there are multiple options that the Oilers could look at to acquire Ristolainen. Buffalo could use a left handed defenseman, so a possible trade including Oscar Klefbom or Darnell Nurse may interest the Sabres. On the forward side, the Oilers have both Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jesse Puljujarvi to offer. Trading RNH would be pretty detrimental to an already mediocre offense, so the prospect of Puljujarvi may be the more realistic option. The Sabres would be looking at either a left-handed defenseman for their second pair or a possible question mark of a prospect who could end up being a bust or pay off greatly.
Another avenue the team could look is to use prospects. While we don’t think this is likely, there are a couple prospects that would interest the Sabres: wingers Kailer Yamamotto and Tyler Benson. Regardless of the likeliness of these options, there are possibilities here that could bring about a deal between Edmonton and Buffalo.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning
The first time that Tampa Bay was connected to Ristolainen was during the 2018-2019 season. While there hasn’t been much linking them lately, the fact that there was interest in Ristolainen means that there still could be interest. Tampa could certainly use a top four right shot defenseman, as they are currently deploying Hedman, McDonagh, and Sergachev, who are all left shots. While there are not left shot defensive options to swap for Ristolainen, there are plenty of forwards who could find their way to Buffalo. Buffalo would have interest in NHL forwards like Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph, Tyler Johnson, Yanni Gourde, Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn (in that order). Cirelli would be the ideal target as he is a young center who seems ready for a top six role, but it may be hard to pry him away from Tampa. It is important to acknowledge that Johnson, Gourde, Palat, and Killorn all have full no-trade clauses that would allow them to block any trade. Tampa has an abundance of forwards and are missing a top four right shot defenseman. Eric Cernak may soon be ready for that role but adding another established defenseman may help the teams’ defense in both the short term and long term.
While Buffalo may have their favorite targets on Tampa’s roster, the main problem is many of them have the ability to block a possible trade. Regardless, if Tampa was really interested in Ristolainen, they have enough NHL assets to find a deal that would work for both teams. If they wanted to deal from their prospect pool, it would need to include one of Taylor Raddysh or Alex Barre-Boulet. For a deal with prospects to work, the Lightning would need to shed salary in the form of Ryan Callahan’s contract and possibly add another roster player. A deal like Johnson, Callahan’s contract, and Raddysh for Ristolainen and Sheary (50% retained) could be close to where a deal like this would need to end up.
2. Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus is a team that could certainly have interest in a top four right shot defenseman. They have Seth Jones and David Savard at the position. Any other defensive player would be playing on their off side if deployed on the right side of a pairing. Four players stand out that would make sense for Buffalo: Ryan Murray, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Alexander Wennberg, and Markus Nutivaara. Chances are, Ryan Murray wouldn’t be an option as it would create another hole on the left side of the top four defense. If the Sabres could grab Bjorkstrand in a deal, they should absolutely do it. At this point, they might be a season or two too late as he has become a 40 point player who can score goals at age 24. That would leave Alexander Wennberg and Markus Nutivaara.
Wennberg has been rumored to be on his way out of Columbus for quite some time, as he took a step back after the 2016-2017 season and hasn’t returned to be the same player. He is only 24, so there is still potential for him to regain top six form. Nutuivaara is a decent option for a bottom pair. If the Sabres could acquire these two in a deal, they’d be looking at a possible top six option and a bottom pair defenseman that would allow the team to not have Marco Scandella in their lineup. Buffalo would be improving two parts of their roster, while Columbus would be getting the top four defenseman that they need.
If Columbus was looking to trade out of their prospect pool instead of using NHL roster players, the conversation with Buffalo would begin and stop with center Alexander Texier. After him, Columbus’ prospect pool doesn’t have a talent that would interest Buffalo in this type of trade.
1. Winnipeg Jets
The Winnipeg Jets currently have some cap space, but they will be very close to the cap once they get top players like Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor signed. After doing that, they will still have a glaring need on defense. After Joshua Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien, there are question marks on defense. Newly acquired Neal Pionk could play a top four role, but ideally he would be best fit on the bottom pair. Prospect Sami Niku projects as a top four defenseman, but putting him there at the start of this season may be asking a bit much of him at this point in his development.
If those two were on the second pair, that would mean deploying a bottom pair that consists of two of Nathan Beaulieu, Tucker Poolman, and Dmitry Kulikov. Kulikov should not see NHL minutes, and the other two are bottom pair at best guys who could easily be scratched. There is a clear need for another top four defenseman and, in a perfect world, two more top four defenseman. The Jets match up fairly well with the Sabres. They have forward depth and need to balance out their roster.
The odd man out in their forward group seems to be Nikolaj Ehlers, as he has been in trade rumors for the past year. In order to acquire him the Sabres may need to send Ristolainen and a player like Conor Sheary (retained salary) to Winnipeg. Buffalo would be acquiring a top six forward, while Winnipeg would be getting a top four defenseman and a depth scorer. If Ehlers is not an option, two other forwards stand out: Jack Roslovic or Mason Appleton.
While these two would be great gets for Buffalo, it wouldn’t clear salary for Winnipeg, so they most likely would need to have a possible deal include a bigger contract to make the financials work. Buffalo would most likely be interested in a Roslovic and Lowry/Copp package. While that would further jam up their forward situation, the Sabres would then be able to deal Sheary or even flip Lowry/Copp. If Winnipeg wanted Buffalo to take a player like Mathieu Perreault, the rest of the trade package would need to be greater than Roslovic. It seems that Ehlers would truly make the most sense, but a deal could be found around a different package of players.
We ultimately think a trade of Ristolainen and Conor Sheary (some salary retained on Sheary) for Nikolaj Ehlers makes the most sense for both parties. If we were handicapping where Ristolainen starts the season, we would give Winnipeg around a 35%, Columbus 20%, Tampa Bay 15%, Buffalo 10%, Edmonton 10%, Anaheim 5%, and the field as 5%. We also need to emphasize, the Sabres’ biggest need in a trade might be a left-handed defenseman. There are two questions the team needs to answer. First, can they sign Jake Gardiner, who would be a dynamite addition? Second, can they count on Lawrence Pilut? Although his underlying metrics were strong in a limited sample with Buffalo, there is an injury question as well as a question if his limited sample in Buffalo is sustainable. We aren’t as ready to anoint him as many others and think the Sabres would be wise to look for a more known option. Additionally, the team would still be an injury away from Marco Scandella or Matt Hunwick playing. That cannot happen.
Our current lineup prediction has Jimmy Vesey playing on the first-line. That is definitely not ideal. However, Jack Eichel may be able to drive offense enough to overcome that deficiency. It also has Marcus Johansson as the second-line center. If the team can acquire a better option at center, they should explore it. While the package of Ristolainen and Sheary (or Evan Rodrigues) would work for a top line winger, it likely doesn’t net more than a short-term solution at the center position. If they are looking to acquire a younger, long-term solution at the center position, Casey Mittelstadt probably has to be packaged with Ristolainen. This would make sense from an asset management standpoint as Mittelstadt’s future role would suddenly be filled. However, this seems unlikely to happen. The team gets one shot at moving Ristolainen and they need to ensure they choose the correct return. We have thoroughly been through all the scenarios in our previous article, as well as this one. We now sit and wait to see when the dominoes start to fall.
Image courtesy of Bill Wippert / Getty Images
James Finch is an analyst at AFP Analytics. James graduated from St. John Fisher College in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in Sport Management with a minor in Economics. His background with sports and economics have brought about an interest in gaining experience and finding his niche within the sport analytics field.
KYLE STICH is the Director of AFP Analytics. In addition, Mr. Stich is a tax specialist and Director of Operations at AFP Consulting LLC, whose clientele include professional athletes performing services on three separate continents. Mr. Stich earned his Master of Science in Sport Management with a Concentration in Sport Analytics from Columbia University in 2017. He earned his undergraduate degrees in Accounting and Sport Management from St. John Fisher College in 2015, where he has served as an adjunct professor teaching Sport Finance and Baseball Analytics.