When NHL training camps open on September 12, Rasmus Ristolainen will report for his annual physical examination.
The question is, will Ristolainen be reporting to his seventh Buffalo Sabres training camp?
Welcome to the seven year itch.
Playing for the Sabres has been like dog years for Ristolainen. Seven years feels like 49 years mentally. In 2013, then GM Darcy Regier selected Ristolainen eighth overall, one pick after the Oilers selected Darnell Nurse and one slot ahead of the Canucks grabbing Bo Horvat. Since that day, Ristolainen has had three general managers (Regier, Tim Murray, Jason Botterill) and has played for four head coaches in Lindy Ruff, Ted Nolan, Dan Bylsma, and Phil Housley.
Will Ristolainen get a chance to experience playing in training camp for newly minted Sabres head coach Ralph Kreuger?
Or, will he be making his debut for a brand new NHL club in say Anaheim, New Jersey, Florida, Winnipeg, Colorado or Philadelphia?
At this moment, Jason Botterill is dealing with a maxed-out salary cap. Botterill has already invested $82,559,524 in his 2019-20 player roster.
Now, something has to give.
Botterill has 24 players on his current roster now that all of his RFAs have been signed. Botterill has one month to get his roster and salary cap compliant. He will put injured players on long term injued reserve. He will send others to the Rochester Amerks. On Thursday, Botterill told my friends Andrew Peters and Craig Rivet (The Instigators) that he "doesn't have to make a trade today".
Perhaps not on this day but perhaps tomorrow or the next day.
In the past seven months, Botterill has re-built his blue line. He has acquired three gifted right shot defeneman. No longer are the Sabres going to rely game in and game out on having Ristolainen skate upwards of 28:00 TOI per game.
Ristolainen's role with the Sabres is about to change dramatically.
When Ristolainen (first round pick 2013) left Buffalo in May, he was a 24:38 TOI, 43 point veteran top four defenseman.
Since then, the Buffalo blue line has been fortified and re-tooled to be one of the best right shot defensive battalions in the NHL. When training camp opens, there will be five men fighting for the three right shot D roster spots.
When the 2017-18 season ended, here was the laundry list of 13 different defensemen who played in games for the Sabres that season:
Last season, changes were made to the Buffalo back end. 2018-19 saw the coming of age of 18 year old phenom and first overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, who by the way plays left and right D. Silky smooth swede Lawrence Pilut aslo made his NHL debut and impressed early and often. Veteran Matt Hunwick played in just 14 games due to injury. Sabres draft choice Will Borgen did not disappoint in the four games he played late last season. Ristolainen, McCabe, Bogosian, Scandella, Beaulieu, Nelson, Guhle, and Tennyson were also in the fold.
Botterill promised changes to his D corps after yet another disappointing season for the Sabres. Botts is a man of his word.
As it stands on August 11, Ristolainen Buffalo's third pair right shot D-man. The Buffalo right-shot D roster:
Zach Bogosian (LTIR- hip surgery)
On the left side:
Lawrence Pilut (LTIR-shoulder surgery)
Montour, Miller and Ristolainen are your top three RD today. However, that can change in the days and weeks to come.
Botterill is looking through his windshield and not his rear view mirror. He didn’t acquire Montour and Miller to be role players. To the contrary. Botterill sees Montour, a pending RFA in 2020, and Miller as integral cogs in the Buffalo Sabres leadership team for the present and future.
Were he remain a Buffalo Sabre, Ristolainen will seemingly has to give back 5:00 minutes of TOI per game and accept a lesser work load. Knowing Ristolainen the way I do, less is not more. In other words, Ristolainen wants to defend his TOI and prove to his new head coach Ralph Kreuger that he is deserving of the heavy work load that accompanies the 25:00 plus TOI per game. The latest additions to the Buffalo right defense group suggest Ristolainen's pleas for more TOI will be falling on deaf ears, if he is a Sabres come September 12.
On February 25, Sabres GM Jason Botterill traded for top four puck mover Brandon Montour from the Anaheim Ducks in return for a 2019 first round pick and left shot defenseman Brendan Guhle.
On July 9, the Sabres acquired defenseman slick right shot D Henri Jokiharju from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for forward Alexander Nylander.
Jokiharju made his NHL debut in 2018-19, posting 12 assists in 38 games for the Blackhawks. He also recorded 17 points (2G,15A) in 30 AHL games for the Rockford IceHogs and his .57 points per game ranked eighth among rookie AHL defensemen with more than 20 games played.
On June 28, the Sabres upgraded their D corps when Colin Miller was traded from the Vegas Golden Knights to the Sabres in exchange for a second-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft (from St. Louis) and a fifth-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft.
Miller spent the last two seasons with the Golden Knights, where he led all Vegas defensemen in both assists (57) and points (70) during that stretch. He recorded 29 points (3G,26A) in 65 games for the Golden Knights in his fourth NHL season in 2018-19.
Rasmus Ristolainen has been a man of very few words this summer. Per usual, he has been letting his work in the gym do the talking for him.
On Saturday, fifty five days before the opening night of the Sabres’ 50th NHL season, Ristolainen broke his self imposed silence. He talked openly about his future with the Sabres with Finland's MTV Sports. Risto suggested he may be traded by the Sabres *before* opening night arrives.
Ristolainen said he isn't happy with his position on the Buffalo Sabres and wants to look into playing in another NHL club.
The 24 year old feisty Finn Ristolainen still has three more years remaining with his contract with the Buffalo Sabres at $5.4 million AAV.
Ristolainen has trade value inside the NHL.
He knows it. Jason Botterill knows it.
Despite Ristolainen's frustrations that have been fermenting after six losing seasons in Buffalo, Ristolainen has been a good soldier about it. He is a man of very few owrds who prefers to let his actions do his talking for him.
"The situation is open. I can not say anything other than the fact that I am on the 12th of September, one of the NHL team's training camp", Ristolainen said.
"However, we wanted to keep the discussions between me and the club."
In 424 career games played for the Sabres, Ristolainen has scored 36 goals and 158 assists for 194 points (95 PPP).
Ristolainen's -143 plus/minus rating is hard to ignore. He plays against the other team's top lines on a nightly basis which at times exposes his defensive zone weaknesses at even strength.
Ristolainen's head and heart seemingly are in the same place today as his former teammate Ryan O'Reilly, who last July was traded out of Buffalo for five assets. On locker clean out day 2018, O'Reilly said that he lost the love for playing the game of hockey at times during the 2017-18 season in Buffalo. O'Reilly's comments caused quite the fire storm among the Buffalo Sabres fan base. O'Reilly was traded away to a struggling St. Louis Blues team last summer and led the once struggling team to the Stanley Cup championship in June. O'Reilly needed a change of scenery. He got it. Now he will be immortalized in hockey history as being one of the most clutch performers and inspirational team leaders. O'Reilly a last place NHL club in Buffalo and won the hockey Holy Grail while collecting the auspicious Conn Smythe and Selke trophies
a mere eleven months later.
"I haven't been able to help the team win. Recent seasons have been tough and I haven't been able to enjoy hockey", Ristolainen said.
Bear in mind, Ristolainen's comments were translated from Finnish to English.
On locker clean out day in April, a sullen and pissed off Ristolainen said he thinks the room "needs to get tighter, play better, be more accountable".
Ristolainen also said "Winning in tough. Mayb I would like to see sometimes practice or in the room, when you guys (media) don't see, guys going at each other a little bit. You know its not easy to win here and everyone wants it. Maybe be hard on each other"
Risto did not answer questions about his need for a change of venue.
"Honestly, I know changes will happen. Sometimes you can't control like the past few years there has been guys ( Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane, Robin Lehner) leaving.... its too early to say. I'm not thinking about the future. You never control the things that could happen. its too soon to say anything".
"The past six seasons have been the most difficult mentally. Being a young who lives by yourself, its been tough times but its going to grow me as a person, player . Right now, I appreciate a lot winning in this league. Its hard. You don't just get it, you have to earn it and work every night so hard for it. Mentally its been tough, but I have always down everything the hard way in my life. Nothing comes easy".
Risto wasn't and isn't disrespecting Buffalo and its great fans.
"Buffalo is home for me. It feels (like) home.... I love everything about Buffalo: the city, the the people... its a tough question to answer right now"
Ristolainen is a lot like O'Reilly in that both men are driven by their dogged determination and tireless work ethic. Losing is counter intuitive to winners like Ristolainen and O'Reilly.
Ristolainen spent his summer training with strength and condistioning coaches in Mykonos, Greece and in Sweden. He's always physically fit. The kid has morphed int a brick sh*t house since his rookie season in Buffalo when he admittedly was carrying "baby fat" on his 6'4", 220 lb. frame.
However, is Risto's head space correct? In other words, has the constant losing from tanking finally sapped Ristolainen's emotional strength?
Perhaps a trade will do Risto good.
Jason Botterill is still patiently searching for a second line center.
Anahaim's Rickard Rakell has been on Buffalo's radar since the Fall of 2018.
New Jersey's Taylor Hall is looking for a a new opportunity.
Same for Florida's Vincent Trocheck. Winnipeg has Jack Roslovic and Nik Ehlers to make a deal with the Sabres for Ristolainen.
The Jets badly need a right D to replace recenty departed RD sequoias Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers.
The Colorado Avalanche have a need for a right shot D-man and they have a bevy of salary cap space plus center J.T. Compher.
Philadelphia's Sean Couturier is also in Botterill's cross hairs.
Trading Ristolainen at the end of the summer could fetch Botterill a bona fide, legitimate playmaking-scoring, veteran center ice man. Waiting until U.S. Thanksgiving is also an option for Botterill to consider.
The Ryan O'Reilly trade has been and will continue to be a wide open wound for Sabres fans to have to deal with for many years to come. Watching ROR hoist Lord Stanley's Cup was a throat punch that Sabres fans were fearful of when the trade was made last summer. With all due respect to Vlad Sobotka, Tage Thompson, Patrik Berglund, and the 2019 first round pick (#31, D, Ryan Johnson) and 2021 second round pick. Botterill should have been adamant about demanding Blues top prospects Robert Thomas or Jordan Kyrou in the trade for Ryan O'Reilly. The only saving grace of the trade was Berglund qquitting the NHL after being suspended by the Sabres anad leaving a Brinks trucked filled with $13 million cash sitting at 1 Seymour H. Knox Plaza in Buffalo.