Sabres' Rasmus Ristolainen problem is hardly unique

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Buffalo Sabres defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen takes a shot on goal. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)
Buffalo Sabres defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen takes a shot on goal. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

“Trade is one for one: Rasmus Ristolainen for Taylor Hall.”

That was a very real headline we could have seen right before free agency opened in 2016. Multiple outlets have reported over the years that the Edmonton Oilers — in their desperate search for a defenceman of any quality at all — offered the Sabres a straight-up trade of future MVP Taylor Hall for future “defenceman they’ll happily take a mid-round pick for” Rasmus Ristolainen. And Buffalo said no.

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You don’t need me to tell you this is one of the bigger NHL talent evaluation failures of the past decade (right up there with “We need to trade Taylor Hall”), but that’s the way it works when NHL teams overvalue bad defencemen on half-cocked, unprovable premises like, say, “being tough to play against.”

At the time, Ristolainen was 21 years old and coming off his second full season in the NHL. It was a sophomore campaign in which he put up nine goals and 41 points on a team that finished below .500 and saw Ryan O’Reilly lead the team in scoring with just 60 points. They looked at what he did, production-wise, at 21 and said, “Imagine what comes next.”

The impossible idea that this was somehow a 50-, 60-point defenceman in waiting is a lot more tantalizing than the red flags and klaxons that were going off all over the place saying, “This guy stinks at 5-on-5.” Of all the defencemen in the league, Ristolainen was on for the seventh-most score-adjusted goals against, fifth-most shots and shot attempts against, and so on. Almost half his production also came on the power play, and at 5-on-5 his scoring rates were decidedly middle-of-the-road among heavily used blueliners.

You could chalk that up to the fact that the team was horrible, or perhaps his inexperience. After all, “defencemen take more time to develop” — and if you believe that, I have a $5.4-million AAV No. 4 power-play specialist to sell you.

Point is, wouldn’t Hall have looked good next to O’Reilly (who maybe doesn’t get traded if Hall scores as you’d expect him to) or Eichel (which doesn’t require you to trade for Jeff Skinner and then sign him until he’s 52)?

Now, you don’t want to assume too much about Ristolainen’s league-wide valuation here because the Sabres and Oilers of the mid-2010s weren’t exactly model franchises for scoping out and utilizing talent. Plus, Ristolainen had already been signed to a six-year deal worth $32.4 million the previous October, which is a big payday for a guy coming off his ELC with just 112 games and 24 points (to go with 61 on-ice goals for and 112 against in all situations) on his resume.

The problem, then, is that Ristolainen was always seen as something he wasn’t: A guy who could carry the load for you at 5-on-5 and even shorthanded. With that new contract came more than twice as much time on the penalty kill. The Sabres continued to ignore this, missed out on an all-world talent, and kept playing Ristolainen — in heavy minutes — to their detriment for another three seasons.

It should be said the Sabres aren’t alone in this kind of thinking. Many players are held up to be something they aren’t, weren’t, and never could be just because a team drafted them, scored a decent amount from the blue line, did “physical hockey” things, or played a surprising key role in a big moment. Look at Jake Allen or Andrew Shaw, Ville Leino — oops, another Buffalo example — or Shea Weber, Shawn Thornton or Andrew Hammond.

(Think about how hard I tried not to say Tom Wilson here, too.)

All hung around longer than their sell-by dates, got more money than they reasonably should have, and ended up making their teams look very bad as a result.

With Ristolainen now apparently wanting out, the ship has certainly sailed on him being valued in the same universe as a Hall. As I said yesterday, they’ll be lucky to get the straight-up cap relief for him. If that happens, they should be thrilled with the opportunity to go out and sign a replacement-level guy at 20 percent of the price for roughly the same kind of quality — though it must be said he’s still pretty good on the power play — and give themselves even more cap flexibility for next summer.

But still, it’s a huge “what if” premised on Tim Murray fundamentally misunderstanding how good Ristolainen was, or rather, wasn’t. Three years ago.

Not the first time it ever happened, certainly won’t be the last, but if you’re a Sabres fan — even one of those who swore up and down that Ristolainen was a season away from breaking out for the last three years — you gotta be furious with how everything shook out.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat TrickEvolving HockeyHockey ReferenceCapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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