The Buffalo Sabres Need To Face a New Reality With Rasmus Ristolainen

Rasmus Ristolainen

The path to getting rid of Rasmus Ristolainen has been long and hard for the Buffalo Sabres. Fans have been pleading for his departure for years… seemingly since he joined the team. And it makes sense. He’s not that good. It’s a bit of a drawn-out trope by now, so diving into his struggles is a bit redundant. But the sentiment that Ristolainen needs to go rings through Buffalo louder than ever. And at this point, there is only one way of accomplishing it.

There’s Only One Way To Get Rid of Rasmus Ristolainen

There are a lot of valid reasons why hearing any alternative to a trade is a bit upsetting for Sabres fans. Ristolainen has been involved in trade rumours for years and some of the supposed returns were really, really attractive. Apparently, the Sabres turned down a Taylor Hall-for-Ristolainen swap at one point (something that’s a bit ironic now). They later turned down a deal that would’ve involved the defensemen and Winnipeg Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers.

Plenty of high-profile names, who would’ve been absolutely perfect fits in Buffalo, have been offered in trades also involving Ristolainen. They’ve all been turned down. So there’s a sense of FOMO for a lot of Buffalo fans. Why just ditch Ristolainen for now when there are other options available… right? Surely top-end trades are still out there…

It’s a bit of wishful thinking — and is entirely understandable — but it seems the ship has sailed on a worthwhile Ristolainen trade. Of course, the idea of ditching a 40-point defenceman for nothing has its own irks. But ultimately, as any Sabres fan will attest to, the team is better off letting Rasmus Dahlin (or a new name) fulfill the #1-defenceman role, rather than continuing to feed minutes to Ristolainen. And as the wonderful Chad DeDominicis touched on, decreasing his minutes isn’t likely to help much. He just needs to go.

The Only Way

Ristolainen has been rumoured to be on the trade market once more but he isn’t getting any bites, evident by, well, the lack of a trade yet. It’s safe to assume that a trade isn’t likely at this point.

The only other way to get out of a contract is to… buy it out. And, oddly enough, a buyout would seriously benefit the Sabres.

Obviously, the most important thing to discuss when mentioning a buyout is the cap ramifications. Ristolainen’s current contract has a pricey $5.4 million cap hit for the next two seasons — the most of any Sabres defenceman. If they were to buy out his contract the minute the second buyout window opens up, here is what his cap hit would be reduced to:

2020-21 Cap Hit: $1,816,667  ($3.58 million in savings)
2021-22 Cap Hit: $816,667 ($4.58 million in savings)
2022-23 Cap Hit: $816,667 ($816,667 in expenses)
2023-24 Cap Hit: $816,667 ($816,667 in expenses)

The Sabres would gain a serious chunk of change in savings over the next two seasons, even if it meant bearing a modest price for 2022-23 and 2023-24. Really, an $816,667 is almost negligible; only $116,667 over a league minimum contract is right now.

It’s hard to emphasize how truly ground-breaking these sort of savings would be. The best way might be to list a few players who are expected to sign for an at-or-below $3.58 million. Here are four of the best, with their projected deals pulled from Evolving Hockey’s projections:

(Projected term; projected cap hit on new deal)
Conor Sheary (Two years; $3.526 million cap hit)
Ilya Mikheyev (Three years; $3.119 million cap hit)
Dominik Kahun (Two years; $2.912 million cap hit)
Ilya Kovalchuk (One year; $2.328 million cap hit)

It’s important to note that, thanks to Covid, these projections are a bit awry. No math can take the effects of a pandemic into account and there’s been a slight deviation from projections as a result. RFAs (like Mikheyev and Kahun) have been signing longer, more expensive deals while UFAs (like Sheary and Kovalchuk) have been signing shorter, cheaper deals. This makes sense, as teams are searching for sure-fire deals by locking up their youth with deals that make both sides happy, instead of taking a flyer on a UFA that could cause cap troubles later on.

But even with that in mind, these are just five names that could immediately boost the Sabres top-nine, a group in desperate need of some help. Evolving Hockey’s projections had 351 players (yeah…) projected to earn below $3.58 million, meaning that the Sabres could very easily find a difference-maker with the money they’d save in a Ristolainen buyout.

The Only Choice

There are a bunch of options the Sabres could find with the Ristolainen-savings. They could sign an immediate top-six impact, like Kovalchuk. They could bring back Sheary or re-sign the high-impact Kahun. Or they could venture into the offer sheet market and take a stab at Ilya Mikheyev, who scored 23 points in 39 games despite playing third-line minutes and not appearing on any special teams. On the blue-line, top-end youngsters (RFAs) in Vince Dunn and Erik Cernak could be had with the cap money saved by buying out Ristolainen — two players that are poised for seriously bright futures, with the former showing peeks of being a future star and the latter a reliably-great defensive defenseman.

Cernak, in particular, would be the perfect counterpart to Dahlin. The right-handed defenceman would slot perfectly next to Dahlin and would bring a perfect defensive style to Dahlin’s offensive outburst.

The point is, Buffalo could very, very easily fix some prevalent issues if they bought out Ristolainen’s contract. They could seriously boost their top-six, refresh their defence, or even take a late stab at the goalie market. It’d be a serious boost to the possibilities of a team that already has $13.6 million in cap space.

Ristolainen is a black hole for the Sabres, pulling down any positives that the Sabres top lines bring. With Taylor Hall and Eric Staal bringing in a seriously-great breath of fresh air to the Sabres lineup, the team needs to make sure they do all they can to encourage the new forward momentum. Getting rid of Ristolainen, while gaining an attractive amount of cap space in the process, would be the perfect way to do just that.

A high-end trade may be off the table but with a buyout and some aggressive moves on the open market, the Sabres might finally be able to take advantage of getting rid of Rasmus Ristolainen.

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