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Sabres' slide, defensive struggles 'weighing' on Rasmus Ristolainen

Rasmus Ristolainen stood with his arms folded outside the Buffalo Sabres' dressing room, bit his lower lip and, in a voice barely above a whisper, uttered an expletive to describe his own play during the team's slide.

The 24-year-old defenseman typically speaks confidently with his chest puffed out, no matter the circumstances, and has rarely shown such raw emotion since beginning his NHL career in 2013. However, he has not endured a stretch such as this, either.

"There's only one way to go: it's up," Ristolainen bemoaned following an off-ice workout Tuesday in KeyBank Center.

His teammates have seen those struggles weighing on Ristolainen in recent weeks. He shouldered responsibility for the Sabres' 4-3 loss to Edmonton Monday night and called the result "frustrating." He was on the ice for three goals against, including two in a span of two minutes, 17 seconds, and entered Tuesday with a league-worst minus-33 rating.

Ristolainen has lapses with decision-making and awareness. He has lost too many one-on-one puck battles along the boards, continues to turn the puck over in his own zone and commits the same mistakes in defensive-zone coverage, despite having played 412 NHL games.

Coach Phil Housley was not made available to reporters following the off-ice workout but gave a very telling response when asked about Ristolainen on WGR Radio earlier Tuesday.

“Rasmus is in a tough place right now because a lot of the things he’s doing – it seems like it’s coming back at him,” Housley acknowledged. “The thing I do like about Rasmus’ game is his physicality and his competitiveness. The matchups that he faces like (Alex) Ovechkin, and some of these heavy players, he does a terrific job of shutting these guys down. ...

“It’s just those other important times in the game, defensively; just the reads, being quicker to close and being closer to his man that we have to continue to work on with him."

Ristolainen has a minus-11 rating over the Sabres' last five games, and those defensive struggles have followed him throughout his career. Since the start of the 2013-14 season, Ristolainen ranks last in the NHL with a minus-135 rating in 412 games – 42 worse than any other player – despite having 190 points during that span.

Plus-minus is not always indicative of individual performance, particularly with a player such as Ristolainen, who often must face an opponent's top players while averaging more than 24 minutes per game during his career. Additionally, his supporting cast was not as strong in past seasons.

The same can be said for Corsi – which measures 5-on-5 shot differential – because one player's mistake or individual success affects the number for everyone on the ice. Ristolainen's mark of 47.44 is the fifth-worst among Sabres with at least 50 games played this season.

He ranks eighth in the NHL and first on the Sabres in defensive-zone faceoffs – 70 more than any of his teammates – which leaves him more susceptible to scoring chances and shot attempts against. Yet, Ristolainen leads the Sabres in 5-on-5 and power-play ice time, while ranking first among their defensemen in offensive-zone faceoffs.

As Housley alluded to, Ristolainen does bring the type of snarl and physicality the Sabres lack. He has played his best when moving opponents from in front of his own net and using his size to win one-on-one battles for loose pucks before breaking the puck out of his own zone. Consistency has eluded Ristolainen, much like the rest of the Sabres.

"Obviously a tough position with him," said Kyle Okposo, whose minus-34 rating ranked last among NHL forwards last season. "I was in a similar position last year. It’s a tough thing. You can see it kind of weighing on him, but he’s a big part of our team. He’s an impact player on our team. We believe in him and we’re just going to keep trusting him. I know he expects a lot out of himself, and he works extremely hard and you have to believe it’s going to turn for him."

Ristolainen had a plus-2 5-on-5 shot-attempt differential in 12 minutes, 55 seconds against Ovechkin during the Sabres' 5-2 win over the Washington Capitals on Feb. 29, only to post a negative-9 against the Toronto Maple Leafs' top line two days later.

Ristolainen had similar struggles against lines led by Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby during a 4-3 overtime win over Pittsburgh last Friday, and one bad shift has marred some of his better performances. He rebounded well against John Tavares in Toronto on Saturday, only to be outmuscled during a one-on-one battle with fourth-line winger Trevor Moore on the Maple Leafs' go-ahead goal in the second period.

Ristolainen struggled mightily against the Oilers' Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on Monday, and his inability to win a one-on-one battle with Draisaitl led to Darnell Nurse's go-ahead goal.

"Just do whatever it takes to win," Ristolainen said, slightly shrugging his shoulders when asked of a possible solution. "I want to win. Just try to play better defensively when you play like guys like McDavid. You can’t have one bad shift. I think that was the turning point in the game. I had one not great shift and that turned the game around."

Ristolainen is under contract for three more seasons with an annual cap hit of $5.4 million, per He remains on the Sabres' top power-play and penalty-killing units, while playing on the right side of their top defensive pairing. There is no sign that Housley intends to lessen his ice time or role, despite the acquisition of Brandon Montour.

After all, Ristolainen has a skill set that tantalizes and the sort of physicality the Sabres could use more of. While plus-minus and advanced metrics show troubling regression, Ristolainen told reporters he pays little attention to statistics. He is more concerned about not being detrimental to the Sabres winning games.

"We’ve been talking about the plus-minus for six years, so I’m done talking about it," he deflected. "I really don’t look at stats too much. I count wins and haven’t done a good enough job to win games."

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