The Curious Case of Rasmus Ristolainen: What is his value?
We previously wrote an article series (part 1 & part 2) looking at the Buffalo Sabres and their logjam on defense. We concluded that the Sabres best option would involve a trade of Rasmus Ristolainen. In the second part of the article series, we looked at nine teams that could have varying degrees of interest in the 24-year-old, right-handed defenseman. There was one burning question that remained, what is Rasmus Ristolainen’s value and why would the Sabres trade him. In this article, I will do my best to provide an unbiased assessment of Ristolainen’s play to help answer those questions. As the regular season quickly approaches, it is critical the Sabres make the smartest lineup decisions to give them a chance to get off to a good start.
Last season, there were nine defensemen who were under the age of 26 and had a cap hit between $5M and $6M on a long-term contract for next season. These players will demonstrate what level of play the Sabres should expect out of Ristolainen and can be found in the table below.
Comparing Player Performance
The first step I want to take is to look at Ristolainen’s performance compared to these other players as that provides us an insight into what level of play similar players provide. The question I want you to continue asking yourself as you work your way through each section of the article is would you be willing to trade one of these players in a one for one trade from both teams’ perspective. If your answer to that question is a resounding no, the player is not performing at the expected level.
To assess these players’ performance, I am going to focus on three “underlying metrics,” their scoring metrics, and then any other individual metrics that I see as relevant. I will focus on the previous three seasons for each player and only look at their play during 5v5 play. Please note that all statistics have been sourced from NaturalStatTrick.com As I work my way through the performance analysis, I will explain what metrics I am using, why I think they are important, and what they are telling us about the player.
I will start with metrics that are most predictive of team success. Here, I will look at Corsi For% (CF%) Relative (Rel), Goals For% (GF%) Rel, and Expected Goals For% (xGF%) Rel. For each metric, I will also include their components (For and Against) so we can understand why a player is performing how they are. Let me start by explaining why I am using Relative metrics. Relative metrics are a way to look at players on a more equal scale. It will be much easier for a player to have a 50% GF% on a team that has a 55% GF% than it would be to have a 50% GF% on a team with a GF% of 45%. To put things in simpler terms, it would be easier for a player to have had a positive goal differential while playing for the 2018-2019 Tampa Bay Lightning compared to playing for the 2018-2019 Ottawa Senators. The relative metrics are looking at how much better the team performed with the player on the ice versus when he was off the ice. A relative metric near
The first metric I will look at is Corsi. Corsi is measuring every time a shot is taken, whether it be on goal or toward goal. I prefer to refer to Corsi as shots and traditional shots as shots on goal. From here on, I will interchangeably use Corsi and shots to refer to the same thing. I will always refer to shots on goal as just that. This is the logic used in soccer and there is no reason to not apply the same in hockey.
Now that I have established what Corsi is, I will explain why it is important. With no easily accessible time of possession tracking, Corsi gives us the best ability to estimate who is consistently playing in their offensive zone and who is consistently playing in their defensive zone. If your team is taking more shots against your opponent while you are on the ice, your team has to be playing in the offensive zone. If your opponent is taking more shots, you are spending more time in the defensive zone. There are flaws with the metric, namely, you are influenced by the teammates you are playing with and the situation you are playing in. However, over the course of a season and certainly multiple seasons, most of these concerns will tease themselves out. Let’s take a look, starting with the 2016-2017 season. Remember that for the orange bar, representing shots against, the lower the number is better.
When looking at the 2016-2017 season, we see that the Sabres got absolutely caved in when Ristolainen was on the ice. Some of these other players hurt their teams’ performance but none as negatively as Ristolainen. It might be acceptable to see decent shot generation while getting shelled in his own zone because that would lead me to believe that with more favorable deployment he could be effective. One of the arguments in Ristolainen’s favor has always been he had been saddled with terrible partners for many of his early years in Buffalo. In 2016, Ristolainen played the most minutes with Jake McCabe followed by Josh Gorges and Dmitry Kulikov. The latter two defenders are definitely not possession drivers and McCabe is not a defender known for driving play himself either so on the surface it is not surprising to see the Sabres’ numbers worse when Ristolainen was on the ice considering who he had to play with. However, a deeper dive into the pairings show that each defender was actually BETTER when away from Ristolainen. Ristolainen was the one dragging their play down. That should not happen. However, I would not want to draw conclusions based off of one season. Let’s look at the 2017-2018 season next, which was kinder to Ristolainen.
During the 2017-2018 season, Ristolainen showed signs of being passable. The Sabres saw a very slight uptick in play when Ristolainen was on the ice versus when he was off. Considering they were
We now see three straight years where Ristolainen’s team gave up significantly more shots when he was on the ice versus when he was off. This is the first year in which he was not the weakest of our comparable group in this area, though Morgan Rielly was so strong offensively that he virtually canceled out the team’s poor performance in their own end when he was on the ice. We do not want to draw absolute conclusions based on one metric but as things stand now, I would say Ristolainen is not performing at the level he should. I would have a hard time envisioning any of the teams of these other players trading one of them one for one for Ristolainen. One of the questions the team would have to consider is if they are selling low. With just looking at one metric, last offseason would have been the best one to trade Ristolainen.
The next metric I will assess is GF% Rel. This metric is very straightforward. It is looking at whether or not your team is outscoring the opponent’s team while a player is on the ice. Keep in mind the relative aspect, which will show whether your team’s goal differential is getting better or worse while the player in on the ice. The positive of this metric is it is indicating actual outcomes. To win games, you have to outscore the opponent and that is what this metric measures. The negative of this metric is it is highly reliable on outcomes outside of a player’s control, namely the goaltending, both for and against. Save percentage is incredibly inconsistent from season to season and tremendous luck is involved. With the goal of any player analysis to be to isolate individual skill, we need to look beyond GF% to accomplish that. However, I still want to present the GF% Rel and its components because it will help us tell the most complete story about a player. I will again start by looking at the 2016-2017 season.
In 2016, we see that the Sabres were slightly better in goal differential when Ristolainen was on the ice versus off. He slotted in the middle of the comparison group for this season. As I discussed above, this is not a metric that I want to put a ton of stock in but one of the positive takeaways here is despite getting shelled by shots when Ristolainen was on the ice, the actual results were actually ok. Let’s move on to the 2017-2018 season.
Above, we see another moderately strong performance from Ristolainen, which better follows his shot metrics. Once again, we see Ristolainen slotting favorably among the comparison group. Ristolainen’s strong performance in two out of two seasons is a good trend but as we move to the most recent season, we will see a very concerning outcome.
Last season, Ristolainen performed the worst among the comparison group. Because of the
The final metric I will present in this section is xGF%, which is a more theoretical measure that does a fantastic job of speaking to an individual’s independent skill. Not only does it provide a strong individualized look at a player, it strongly correlates to team success. Every shot has many different factors, such as distance,
The Sabres were the fourth-worst team in expected goals during the 2016 season at 47.44% and the team was more than 2% worse when Ristolainen was on the ice. That is brutal. The other players who had negative results in 2016 played on teams that had xGF% above 50% so they were not playing at the same level as their teammates on a good team while Ristolainen made one of the worst teams in the league significantly worse. Though it is just one season, that is not a ringing endorsement for Ristolainen. Let’s move on to 2017 next.
The good news in 2017 is Ristolainen slightly improved his team’s performance. The bad news is the Sabres had the worst xGF% in the league at 46.17%. In simple terms, Ristolainen barely moved the needle in a positive direction on the league’s worst team. He was replaceable on the worst team in the league. After two seasons, there are only three players (Dumba, Theodore, and Rielly) who could be thought of in the same tier as Ristolainen. We will look to 2018 to see if the same players appear again in the bottom.
In 2018 we see some much different results than the previous two seasons. The only two players who remain near even or negative for the three seasons we looked at are Morgan Rielly and Rasmus Ristolainen. It’s interesting that the strong performers from previous years were weak this year and some of the weak ones (Dumba and Theordore) were much stronger. In the last three years, the only player we could argue as being close performance wise, based off the relative metrics I have discussed here, to Ristolainen is Rielly.
Now that I have been through the relative metrics I want to turn your attention to some individual metrics. We will start with individual scoring and touch on some other metrics that speak to some of the other impacts the players have when they are on the ice. For some brevity, I will not go into as much depth as I did for the above metrics, mostly because these metrics are going to be more familiar to all hockey fans. I will emphasize that I will present all of these metrics as per 60 metrics so the players are compared on an equal scale. Using per 60 metrics looks at how each player would perform if they each played 60 minutes. If a player averages a goal per 60 minutes and each game played 20 minutes, we would expect them to score a goal every three games.
Here we will look at goals, assists, and total points. When looking at defensemen, I do not like breaking assists into primary versus secondary even though the math behind it indicates we should. Primary assists are more repeatable from season to season because there is more skill involved. Players directly setting up goals have much more control over the outcome rather than relying on another player to do it for you. However, one of a defenseman’s main jobs is to make stretch passes to move the puck out of the zone. In a perfect sequence, a defender makes a stretch pass to trigger an odd
One way to overlook some of Rasmus Ristolainen’s defensive deficiencies would be if he was contributing to more goals than his counterparts. Ristolainen has been a good point producer on the power play but when we look at his point production compared to the other comparable players, it is lacking. Out of the three seasons I have presented, this past season is the only one where we see Ristolainen’s 5v5 point production not be the worst of the sample. With the emergence of Rasmus Dahlin and the additions of Collin Miller and Brandon Montour, Ristolainen may struggle to get significant
Points are not everything to a player but it would be easier to overlook relatively average production if Ristolainen offset his point production with quality underlying metrics but that is not the case. I would also be more willing to overlook his poor relative metrics if he produced points at a high rate. This is where I think Morgan Reilly separates himself. So far, we have not seen Ristolainen perform well compared to the other players in our sample. I will present two more set of graphs to look at some other measures that could speak to how Ristolainen has performed.
In this next section, we will take a look at how the players performed in giveaways, takeaways, penalties
In these graphs we see Ristolainen show well in puck responsibility, which I have to admit surprises me a little. My gut reaction is many of Ristolainen’s possession struggles come from poor puck management. When looking at his numbers though, giveaways are one of the areas he performs stronger than the other players in this sample. Maybe he benefits from generous off-ice officials in Buffalo that don’t penalize him as much or his struggles come from other poor decision-making. Another possible explanation for his poor underlying metrics is his inability to take the puck away. When watching Ristolainen, I often see him giving up zone entries far too easily. Too often he will back away from the opposing attacker when they reach the blueline. Plays through the neutral zone and zone entries are the most opportune time for defenders to record takeaways. Another way that defenders can record turnovers is by physically bullying players off the puck. Ristolainen should excel at this.
The other metrics I presented in this section relate to penalties, both taken and drawn. Considering Ristolainen plays a very physical and aggressive style of play, he compares well in penalties taken. Based off the comparable players, I expected Ristolainen to rank near the top in penalties taken in every season. Instead, he is very much in the middle. One thing many supporters of Ristolainen like to point to is he does a good job of getting under opposing players’ skin. In the future there may be some ways to better quantify that sentiment but for now I will look at penalties drawn. This is obviously not perfect and I must acknowledge that currently much of that impact is intangible. However, I do think supporters who use that argument need to use it a little less enthusiastically. In 2017, Ristolainen finished near the top of the group in penalties drawn. However, in the other two seasons he was bottom two. If he was truly getting under players’ skin, he should be drawing more penalties. Too often I have seen Ristolainen pestering an opponent while also taking himself out of the play and not getting a penalty out of it. I want to see Ristolainen draw more penalties since it would help make up for some of his poor underlying metrics.
In this section, we don’t see anything that moves the needle either for or against Ristolainen. With his poor underlying metrics, I would like to see him provide some other contributions that can help his team during 5v5 play. At this point, I am still searching for that area of his game.
One reason many NHL observers like Ristolainen is he plays with an edge and is a grit and grind player. In this final section of metrics, I will present statistics to assess that and discuss what they mean for Ristolainen as a player. Here, we will look at blocked shots, hits given, and hits taken. All of these are once again per 60 minutes and during 5v5 play. Please keep in mind that hits, like takeaways and giveaways, are a subjective statistic. I will once again present the three graphs and then move into my commentary.
It should come as no surprise that we see Ristolainen as the player who delivers the most hits. He also takes his fair share of hits. However, there is a downward trend in the number of shots he has blocked. If I am being blunt, performing well in any of these measures don’t really positively impact the team’s ability to win games. Ristolainen’s play style is definitely more physical but one reason he is able to deliver so many hits is
The Buffalo Sabres have a decision to make on Rasmus Ristolainen and it could be directly tied to Dustin Byfuglien’s decision in Winnipeg. Back in
Carolina’s trade of Justin Faulk has a direct impact on Ristolainen. Ristolainen is now the most desirable right-handed defenseman that is likely available. The trade of Faulk also sets a baseline for what a potential Ristolainen trade could look like. I think Ristolainen likely has a higher trade value than Faulk and the Sabres, in my opinion, would need to achieve that to go through with a trade. I also don’t think the Sabres have to get a roster player, especially if it is a player like Joel Edmundson. The team does not need another “throw-in” type player in a trade. If anything, they need to be the ones “throwing” a player in. Faulk has been a better defenseman in recent years but Ristolainen’s age and contract status should make him the more valuable asset.
The obvious trade would be to use Ristolainen as a way to upgrade the forward group. Kase or one of Winnipeg’s young forwards would do just that. However, there is another option that might not be as popular among Sabre fans but I think could be a wise move. Dylan Cozens appears to be a good, young forward prospect. However, after trading Alex Nylander and likely promoting Victor Olofsson, the team is suddenly devoid of forwards, especially wingers with high offensive upside. Tage Thompson looks to be the closest to fit that description and he is far from a sure thing. Using Ristolainen to fill that void might be a better decision than many fans might believe. Even though the team does not have tons of future money committed, there are some upcoming contracts (Dahlin, Reinhart, Montour) that could see their future cap space disappear quickly. If the team could move Ristolainen’s entire salary, while getting a cost-controlled forward who could contribute in a year or two, could turn out to be the smarter long-term move.
So, what should Sabre fans want them to do? If you’ve read my analysis, I think I have painted a pretty clear picture of the impact Ristolainen has on the Sabres and how he compares to other defensemen around a similar age, being paid a similar amount. I don’t think he compares well. For the age Ristolainen is and the cap hit he commands, the Sabres could better allocate their resources. They could flip Ristolainen for a forward that could have an immediate impact and make it a cap neutral move. The team also could flip Ristolainen for future assets at some point to clear additional cap space that the team may need.
Having said that, do I think Ristolainen is a worthless asset? No, I don’t. Ristolainen’s ideal role is probably as a second-pair defenseman who could drive a team’s power play and see minimal penalty kill minutes. Ristolainen will provide the most value to a team as a powerplay driver. The opportunity to do that in Buffalo should be gone. Rasmus Dahlin should be the defenseman with the Sabres’ top unit and Miller, Montour, and Ristolainen should compete for time on the second unit. There is no denying that Ristolainen has been put in some tough situations in Buffalo and he has handled everything well. However, if he was going to become a true top pair defender, he should be improving his team’s play while he is on the ice by now. Dahlin did so as an 18-year-old.
Maybe Ralph Kruger will finally be the coach Ristolainen needs to channel his physical gifts and make him a quality NHL defenseman. If I’m in the Sabres’ front office, I wouldn’t hold my breath on this happening. This offseason might have been a bad time to trade him because he had a brutal end to the season and the team likely would have been selling low. The best outcome for the Sabres could be Ristolainen getting off to a good start while a team like Winnipeg gets off to a slow start and realizes they have a need for a player like Ristolainen.
If you have thoughts on this article, tweet us, @afpanalytics, or me, @k_sticher with your thoughts, comments, questions. If you enjoyed this article, please give us a follow as we will try to produce some quality content as the hockey season arrives. Finally, it is my hope to do a follow-up to this article that includes some video clips. I can’t promise that it will come any time soon or if at all.
All stats are courtesy of naturalstattrick.com and contract data is from capfriendly.com.
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.