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Could different usage, support help Rasmus Ristolainen succeed with Sabres?

Rasmus Ristolainen's talent tantalizes when the puck is on his right-handed stick blade and frustrates fans when he's attempting to protect the Buffalo Sabres' net.

Ristolainen, a 24-year-old defenseman, has been plagued by the same mistakes over the six seasons since he was drafted 12th overall by former General Manager Darcy Regier. However, Ristolainen's struggles seemed to reach another level this past season when he posted a league-worst minus-41 rating.

During locker cleanout last month in KeyBank Center, Ristolainen grimaced when questioning the accountability among his teammates and declined to say whether he wished to remain in Buffalo next season. Now, General Manager Jason Botterill might be weighing whether Ristolainen can reach his potential playing under a fifth different coach or if it is time to possibly parlay one of the Sabres' most valuable assets into a top-six forward.

A closer look at Ristolainen's play this past season suggests a change in role, defensive partner and coach could help him finally blossom in the NHL.

"I’ll tell you what will happen the minute you trade Rasmus Ristolainen: you’ll be looking for a player like Rasmus Ristolainen," TSN analyst Craig Button, a former NHL general manager, said during a phone interview. "You’re going to go try to replace a top-three defenseman that can do a lot of different things with a winger?

"That winger better be an elite winger then because that’s the only justification I would have for making it."

Ristolainen's name surfaced in trade rumors leading up to February's deadline with one report connecting him to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported last month the Sabres and Lightning could revisit such a deal, but Friedman wrote last week that Botterill was asking coaching candidates how each could help Ristolainen succeed.

Ristolainen has posted 40-plus points in four consecutive seasons, including 43 in 2018-19. He has averaged at least 24 minutes per game in each of those years and his 86 power-play points since the start of the 2015-16 season are tied for eighth among NHL defensemen.

"I think he’s a special player that hasn’t really – well, I guess you could say it for the team, too – found his way yet," NHL Network analyst Mike Rupp, a retired 13-year NHL veteran, said. "He certainly has a lot of attributes that are pretty special."

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Jack Eichel and Rasmus Ristolainen. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

The defensive struggles might outweigh the offensive production, though.

Ristolainen finished the season with an NHL-worst rating of minus-41, which isn’t necessarily an accurate representation of his overall performance, but is the second-worst mark by any player since the 2004-05 lockout and tied for the worst in franchise history. New York Islanders defenseman Nick Leddy was minus-42 last season. Hall of Fame center Gilbert Perreault posted a minus-41 rating for the Sabres in 1971-72, his second season in the league.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, Ristolainen ranks last in the NHL with a minus-143 rating – 46 worse than any other player – in 424 games, despite recording 194 points during that span.

Though the statistic is troubling, plus-minus doesn't show how and why Ristolainen was on the ice this season for 77 goals against during 5-on-5 play – 11 more than any of his teammates.

Despite his offensive ability, Ristolainen has been ineffective when trying to break the puck out of his own zone and was responsible for a number of blown defensive coverages.

Usage and personnel have magnified those weaknesses the past six seasons. Coach Phil Housley slightly decreased Ristolainen's ice time in March, however, the latter's 24 minutes, 38 seconds per game ranked ninth among all NHL players. Ristolainen led the Sabres in 5-on-5 ice time and was often tasked with shutting down an opponent's top player, a role in which he was ill-equipped.

In addition to leading the team in penalty-kill ice time, Ristolainen led all Sabres defensemen with 256 defensive-zone starts – 79 more than any other defenseman and 97 more than Rasmus Dahlin – during 5-on-5 play. Rather than trying to mask Ristolainen's weaknesses, the Sabres have continued to force him into a role that does not suit him.

"When you look at some of these other defensemen, I don’t think we should ever expect Rasmus Ristolainen to be a shut-down defenseman," Rupp added. "That’s fine. He has the ability to do a lot of other things and he can certainly improve in those [defensive] areas.

"I think with the situation in Buffalo those things are kind of magnified because they haven’t really been able to have a scheme that can mask his weaknesses. Everything he does is out there in the open. ... They need to turn the corner, find a winning tradition and get structure in their game that will also protect him and allow him to do his things."

Housley's defensive structure was under scrutiny throughout the season, as veterans and young players struggled with coverage around the Sabres' net. Botterill cited that system as one of the reasons why Housley was dismissed and could explain why the team is targeting an experienced coach as a replacement.

However, the same problem existed under Ristolainen's previous coaches.

Too often Ristolainen has been paired with a defenseman who also struggles with defensive-zone coverage and breakouts. The Sabres posted 5-on-5 shot differentials of 41.28 percent and 48.03 percent when Ristolainen was paired with Marco Scandella and Jake McCabe, respectively. Strangely enough, Ristolainen and Dahlin did not fare well, either.

However, the number was inflated to 55.8 percent when Ristolainen played with Lawrence Pilut, though the tandem appeared in only 29 games together because Pilut's puck management and defensive coverage deteriorated.

"I think Ristolainen is a good player. I think he needs support," Button added. "I think he would benefit from a real steady, solid type of defenseman playing with him on the other side. Not someone who is flashy or anything. I think with Rasmus he gets put in situations where he’s asked to do more than he might be capable of or that he’s comfortable with. He needs a support player."

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Ristolainen checks Nashville Predators' Mattias Ekholm at KeyBank Center on Tuesday, April 2, 2019. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Ristolainen's ice time and role would be unlikely to decrease significantly if he stays in Buffalo. While Brandon Montour is a reliable, right-shot, puck-moving defenseman, he does not possess Ristolainen's physicality and snarl – two attributes displayed when Ristolainen is at his best.

The Sabres likely won't have another option to turn to until Dahlin hones his defensive-zone awareness, particularly in high-danger scoring areas. Still, the team would benefit from having someone who could step into that role, particularly on nights Ristolainen struggles.

The turnover both behind the bench and on the roster likely haven't helped.

"I think sometimes you get put into a situation like these guys have at a young age and they’re looking for guidance," former Sabres winger Matthew Barnaby, now an analyst for SiriusXM NHL Network, said. "They haven’t had a ton of that and it’s shown on the ice. ... These guys are going to have to learn on the fly. … They’re going to have to do it through themselves because there isn’t the veteran leadership in that group that has had a ton of success they can lean on."

In a news conference to address Housley's firing, Botterill said he planned to try to add more skilled forwards and additional help on the blue line. The question is how does he plan to add such pieces, especially if most of the Sabres' $23 million in cap space is used to re-sign Jeff Skinner?

Ristolainen could help the Sabres land a top-six forward or second-line center, yet there is the risk he could blossom with another team. He is under contract for three more years at an average annual value of $5.4 million, a remarkable discount considering he is a talented offensive defenseman with a right-handed shot.

"I think nowadays when you’re looking at a defenseman of his caliber and his ability, I don’t know if you can trade him," Rupp said. "You’ll be able to get something for him, but I don’t think you’ll be able to get one player of equal value. … It’s a guy that if you take his attributes and you put them on the table, there will be 31 teams drooling over it. They’ll try to figure it out and find a way. I really do believe it’s structure there. Once the structure gets into place I think they’ll be OK and he’ll be OK."

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