Given that the offseason has been in full swing for the Tampa Bay Lightning for quite a while, our attention has turned toward the draft and possible trade partners to help clear cap space for upcoming contracts. With this shift, certain trade scenarios from various media outlets are floated around. Nearly all won’t come to fruition, but the possibility of something formulating during the offseason is both intriguing and plausible.
Over the last week, speculation came from The Athletic’s Joe Yerdon and Joe Smith that Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen could be a potential trade target for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Here’s Smith’s thoughts on the possibility of this transaction.
The Lightning have to fill out their blue line this summer, with just five defensemen under contract for next season (Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak, Mikhail Sergachev, Jan Rutta). Assuming they don’t bring back pending UFAs Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman – and there’s been no substantive talks yet – there’s a need on the right side. That’s where Rasmus Ristolainen could be an option on the trade market. The 6-foot-4 Finn would need to be a top-four guy, potentially playing on the right side of Hedman, if he’s going to be worth the price. Ristolainen has three years left at $5.4 million cap hit, so there would have to be salary going the other way (or moved elsewhere).
If the Sabres aren’t interested in just taking on the final year of Rochester N.Y native Ryan Callahan’s contract, they could try to fill their need for a second-line center. With so much depth up the middle in Tampa Bay thanks to the emergence of Anthony Cirelli, Tyler Johnson has been right wing the past few seasons. If Buffalo can find a way to pry Johnson out of his no-trade clause, he’d be a good fit at 2C behind Jack Eichel. And Johnson’s $5 million AAV would help compensate for Ristolainen’s the next three years. With Buffalo also lacking depth on the wings in their system, Tampa Bay has some options from AHL Syracuse, like Taylor Raddysh, Boris Katchouk, not to mention this year’s breakout forwards Carter Verhaeghe and Alex Barre-Boulet, each of whom scored 34 goals. Don’t see the Lightning moving Cirelli, who is becoming a core piece, and winger Alex Volkov is a prospect they really like a lot (he may be most NHL-ready forward prospect). But if there’s a deal to be made between the division rivals, it might be intriguing to at least kick the tires.
This article isn’t the first to discuss the possibility of a Ristolainen to Tampa trade. The rumors emerged at the trade deadline earlier this year and have hung around since then. The general thought process behind this make sense. There is a hole on the right side of the defense for Tampa Bay (with no real internal answer appearing to be ready). There is a crowd at center with Tyler Johnson being the odd man out. And the Lightning do have a bevy of young forwards in AHL Syracuse that could interest teams. However, Rasmus Ristolainen should not be the target by the organization.
The superlatives that you’ll hear about Ristolainen will be his frame (he stands 6’4’’), his minute munching capabilities (poor usage by a woefully overwhelmed coaching staff), his ability to make a first pass, and his big shot from the point. Here’s the issue with Ristolainen; he’s terrible at being a defensemen. The chart above provides a quick look at the towering Finn. He’s a drag to his team in every category except on the power-play—an area the Lightning have already two great defensemen quarterbacking in Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev.
If we take a look at the shot rate charts from HockeyViz.com. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture. On offense, Ristolainen doesn’t move the needle for his team at all for a top pairing defender and defensively, Buffalo actually performed slightly better when he was off the ice. Plugging a player like this next to Victor Hedman seems counter intuitive. Yes, Hedman has dragged lesser players to success during his career (Jake Dotchin and Dan Girardi). However, at the price point that Ristolainen would come with ($5.4M for the next three seasons), it would make little sense to ask him to do that again.
As for the terrible team argument. Ristolainen’s teammate Rasmus Dahlin played 17 less minutes at 5v5 and out-performed Ristolainen. At 5v5, Dahlin’s CF% and xGF% were 51%. Ristolainen had a CF% of 47% and an xGF% of 48%. As for scoring, at 5v5, Dahlin edged Ristolainen by one point (22 to 21). Overall, Dahlin also edged Ristolainen by one point again (44 to 43). Buffalo has their future defensemen in Dahlin and are rightfully looking to move on from Ristolainen—whose only value derives from his power-play ability, something the Lightning aren’t looking for.
Also, as for Dahlin’s icetime. Here’s a look at how the rookie (and Buffalo) was used.
Dahlin ended up over 20 minutes a night for 75% of the season and still outperformed Ristolainen (Dahlin is the real deal). Ristolainen was horribly overplayed by a coaching staff that obviously lost confidence in him as the season progressed as evident by his declining minutes during the season (they didn’t cut his minutes nearly enough though).
So, why is Tampa Bay being linked to Ristolainen? Because he’s a right handed shot—the ultimate unicorn in the NHL. At 24, Ristolainen could turn his career around, but it shouldn’t be with Tampa Bay.
The Lightning managed to salvage two years of Dan Girardi by managing his workload and sticking him with a Norris Trophy winning defensemen. Ristolainen’s minutes would decline, but marginally, and he has yet to show that he is a capable defensemen in the NHL. He’s a power-play specialist who actively makes his team worse at 5v5.
At $5.4M per season, he’s grossly overpaid for what he provides to his team. The only thing Ristolainen offers is a presence on the power-play, which, again, the Lightning do not need with Hedman and Sergachev quarterbacking those units. He’d essentially be another version of Andrej Sustr (all of Lightning fandom shudders at the thought), but with a niche offensive skillset that the team doesn’t even need.
Tampa Bay needs a right-handed defensemen who can effectively move the puck up the ice without being a detriment to the team at 5v5. Sure, the Lightning’s scheme could boost Ristolainen, but why take a chance on a defensemen like this? His contract would become an issue the following offseason with Andrei Vasilevskiy and Mikhail Sergachev looking for pay raises.
From Buffalo’s perspective, it’s a dream. They move on from a defensemen that actively hurt them at 5v5, they clear a bad contract (in return for taking one year of Ryan Callahan), and could get a 2C out of it in addition to a young winger to help bolster Jack Eichel and company. However, from Tampa Bay’s perspective, this is a negative. Especially if the rumors of Erik Karlsson have any chance of coming to fruition.
Admittedly, the field for right handed defenders isn’t great with this offseason’s free agents. But making a lopsided trade for Rasmus Ristolainen would be a huge mistake for Julien BriseBois and company. Tampa Bay has consistently been smart in regards to free agency and trades, which has enabled them to maintain a high level of competitiveness since 2014. But this kind of move could have far reaching consequences.
Again, this isn’t a dig at anyone in particular who’s floated the idea. The base idea is sound, but once you dig in on Ristolainen’s performance and his inflated contract, it screams no. I’d rather have Tampa Bay bring up Cal Foote (or Dominik Masin) and see how he handles NHL action instead. Erik Cernak impressed everyone last season. Foote has a higher ceiling and could be ready if given the chance. I’m a proponent of taking it slow with Foote, but I’d still rather push him into the lineup a few months early than commit to several years of Rasmus Ristolainen.