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Sabres Mailbag: What are trade options for Rasmus Ristolainen?

The big trade we have all been waiting for has yet to occur.

Buffalo Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill has built a surplus of right-shot defensemen this offseason, intensifying the trade speculation surrounding Rasmus Ristolainen. Dealing Ristolainen could help the Sabres acquire a top-six forward, but is there a chance he could return?

Let's start there with this edition of my Sabres mailbag, where I answer questions submitted by readers via Twitter:

Jimmy Spoon: If the Sabres trade defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen to the Winnipeg Jets, would you prefer Buffalo receive Nikolaj Ehlers or a package of Jack Roslovic and Mathieu Perreault?

Lance Lysowski: In an ideal world, the Sabres would acquire Ehlers in a trade with Winnipeg, and the Jets are in desperate need of a right-shot defenseman. The 23-year-old has scored at least 21 goals in each of the past three seasons – he had a career-high 29 in 2017-18 – and is under contract for six more years at an average annual value of $6 million. Aside from the Jets being stuck in a salary-cap crunch, it's a mystery why the Jets have reportedly shopped Ehlers.

The potential trade obstacle with Ehlers is fit. He's a left wing, and the Sabres are well-stocked there with Jeff Skinner, Marcus Johansson, Jimmy Vesey, Victor Olofsson and Conor Sheary, among others. Ehlers hasn't played much on the right side, and it's never wise to use a player out of position when the acquisition cost is so high. It's important to note that new coach Ralph Krueger could, and likely will, move Johansson, Olofsson or Sheary to the right side.

Roslovic is intriguing. He's 22 and was chosen with the first-round draft pick Buffalo sent to Winnipeg in the Evander Kane trade in February 2015. Roslovic is also a right wing, which could be an area of need for the Sabres.

My issue with Roslovic is the risk involved. He averaged just 9:45 of ice time over 77 games last season, scoring nine goals among 24 points. Would Roslovic thrive in a top-six role in Buffalo? That's possible and I do like his game, but he's far from a sure thing.

Perreault has at least 13 goals in six of the past eight seasons, but he's a left wing and is owed $4 million in each of the next two seasons. I'd prefer him to most of the Sabres' other bottom-six forwards, but acquiring him seems unrealistic since it appears Botterill is hoping Krueger can coax more out of players such as Zemgus Girgensons and Vladimir Sobotka.

Possible trade targets for the Sabres after signing Marcus Johansson

Tim Cook Apple: Who do you expect to take on a leadership role behind Jack Eichel?

LL: The leadership void on this team needs to be filled through the aggregate. Stanley Cup-contending teams don't rely on only one or two players to lead on and off the ice.

Botterill has done an exceptional job adding players with playoff experience, including Johansson, Sheary, Colin Miller and Brandon Montour. That's important because much of the Sabres' roster either hasn't played in the playoffs or doesn't know what it takes to contend in March and April.

In addition to the aforementioned players, don't forget that Kyle Okposo is outstanding from a leadership standpoint. The same can be said for Carter Hutton, who isn't afraid to hold himself or others accountable. Both will be invaluable assets to Eichel during his second season as captain. Leadership can come in different forms.

For example, I've been told Jeff Skinner was exceptional with young players on the team last season, serving as a resource on and off the ice to Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson. Skinner isn't a rah-rah leader, but his teammates have said that his work ethic is infectious.

John Jarzynski: The Sabres need one of last season's Atlantic Division playoff teams to take a step back in 2019-20. Which do you think is most likely to miss the postseason?

LL: If I had to pick an Atlantic Division team to miss the playoffs, Boston would be my choice. Age has to catch up to that team at some point, right? I also haven't been a big fan of what they've done this offseason, particularly letting Johansson walk. That said, the Bruins aren't missing the playoffs. The more realistic scenario is either Columbus or the New York Islanders take a step back.

The Blue Jackets lost Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky and Ryan Dzingel in free agency, and their only noteworthy addition has been Gustav Nyquist. New York, meanwhile, did not add enough offensively and made the odd decision to let Robin Lehner go.

The Sabres should be considered a playoff contender after what Botterill has done, however, they will face stiff competition for a wild-card spot. Florida, New Jersey and the New York Rangers have significantly improved. Plus, Montreal should be considered a potential playoff team.

In my opinion, Buffalo now has the roster to compete with those teams. The question is whether the coaching staff can take this team to the next level.

Scott Ferguson: Is Tampa Bay center Anthony Cirelli worth adding at a high acquisition cost when the Sabres have Casey Mittelstadt and Dylan Cozens?

LL: Absolutely. It's important for the Sabres to not trade their best prospects, but they should be more than willing to part with Ristolainen and draft picks if it meant acquiring Cirelli. Neither Mittelstadt nor Cozens has proved he can play center at an elite level in the National Hockey League.

Cirelli, who is only 22, scored 19 goals among 39 points during his first full NHL season in 2018-19. He was exceptional at 5-on-5 and performed well in the defensive zone. There's no such thing as having too much depth down the middle. Load up at center now and figure out the potential surplus later.

However, in addition to the high acquisition cost, Cirelli will be an offer-sheet candidate when he's a restricted free agent next offseason, and the Sabres would likely not be in position to give him a lucrative long-term extension.

Nathan Kawalerski: Is it remotely possible the Sabres keep all of their right-shot defensemen?

LL: Sure, there is a remote possibility in which they enter camp with all of them. Bogosian will miss the start of the season, and Henri Jokiharju is not guaranteed to be in the NHL. Yes, Jokiharju is ready for that jump, but the Sabres could choose to send him to Rochester until they sort out the logjam on the blue line.

That would leave the Sabres with Miller, Montour and Ristolainen, with Casey Nelson serving as the seventh or eighth defenseman. Bogosian is expected to make a full recovery from hip surgery, and there would be a market for him if he is made available to other teams.

Botterill isn't going to part with Ristolainen unless the price is right, and it's fair to wonder if other teams value Ristolainen as much as the Sabres.

Keeping Ristolainen would come with a significant amount of risk. What if his performance is worse under Krueger? That could severely impact the Sabres' return in a trade.  With that in mind, I believe Ristolainen will be dealt before training camp.

After all, the Sabres would benefit from creating cap space – hey, it's important to have enough room in the event they are in position to add at the trade deadline – and Ristolainen is likely their only way of adding a top-six forward via trade.

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