Rasmus Ristolainen’s name seems to slither into almost every single Sabres off-season conversation. Rumors and hearsay during draft week and free agency linking him to trades were backing up traffic on the airwaves at the trade deadline like the QEW between Oakville and Toronto. His name had been tossed around going back as far as this time last year. That continued the trade deadline.
Many thought that Phil Housley would be the one to take the physically gifted defenseman under his wing and mold him into the all-star player he has the potential to be. That didn’t quite happen. However, he is still very young. Although considering he was a Darcy Regier draft pick, it seems like he has been here forever. Many experts who like his upside remind us in the media that he is “burnt out” multiple last-place seasons. Although those last-place finishes did net them several lottery picks. Those picks turned into players like Sam Reinhardt, Jack Eichel, and Rasmus Dahlin.
Lindy Ruff’s final days and the beginning of the Ron Rolston era signaled the start of the rebuilding or, as Sabres fans like to refer to it, the suffering. Ted Nolan began his second tenure during this time. Although, this time around, he was not expected to or given the tools to win. In fact, he was unofficially punished any time the team started to show any signs of climbing out of the bottom of the standings. His punishment was not having his phone taken away. Nor was he banned from video games. It was more along the lines of trading away any goalie that starts to show he is capable of playing at a higher level than expected. In addition, players in the minor leagues who typically would be called up during a lost season were not. It was obvious at times that certain players in Rochester were already better than some of the Sabres players. But, they had a plan. And, winning a few extra games was not on that action item list.
As a fan, you want to see them bring in the next superstar player since the playoffs were not in the cards. However, the abundance of losing can have a toll on a young player. This player does not know the team that won the President’s Trophy in 2007 and went to the Conference Finals in back-to-back years. He barely knows the team that just competed for a playoff spot. He knows a team that if they weren’t in last place, they were hanging around with the teams that were.
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At the end of the day, the “suffering” landed them Sammy and Jack. Management then chose Cup winner Dan Bylsma as the coach to lay the foundation of winning. He coached them to a significant improvement in year one but took a step backward in year two. His employment was terminated for the team’s regression. It didn’t help that Eichel was not a Bylsma supporter. He was non-committal on re-signing if a change was not made. Franchise players have power.
Tim Murray joined Bylsma on the chopping block as the Pegula’s were convinced the entire culture needed an overhaul. It should have been an indication way back when Lafontaine came and went in the time it takes to watch Schindler’s List. I had better be careful as it just occurred to me how much grief Jerry Seinfeld took on the sitcom when he disrespected the incredibly long classic motion picture. But I digress.
Enter Jason Botterill
Botterill was previously a candidate for the GM position when Murray landed the job. He was hired this time and was tasked with improving the team with several core players in place. He selected Housley as his first coaching hire. At the time, it was a very popular choice. Housley was a Hall of Fame player for Buffalo when he was drafted and played right out of high school.
However, great players are not always great coaches. Their pure talent may compensate for mental lapses while playing but that won’t necessarily work behind the bench. That is why many of the former players turned coaches who have an extremely long and prosperous career tend to be former blue-collar role players. Exceptions do exist.
Housley was a hot name to make the next big jump to a head coach after he coached the Predators’ defense on a great Stanley Cup playoff run. In addition, “Wowie Housley” had success at the international and amateur level as a head coach. However, it didn’t go that well in Buffalo. He could have been fired after season one as he just did not seem to have the team playing for him as a unit.
His second season looked promising as fans were engaged once again. The blue and gold were at the top of the entire NHL with a 10-game winning streak early on. I recall local talk show hosts doing the math to calculate what the Sabres needed to do the rest of the way to make the playoffs. Well, the winning streak ended and so did the playoff hopes.
The horrible crazy nose dive dropped them to where they actually did much worse than the highly unlikely collapse scenario needed to miss the postseason. Even after the reality started to sink in following the 10-game winning streak, the odds still favored the Sabres. Guess again. They did an amazing record-setting quantity of losing. No one could have imagined a team who won 10 games in a row against NHL quality teams could possibly miss the playoffs by as much as they ultimately did.
Hello! This is the Sabres. This is Buffalo.
Back to Ristolainen
Unfortunately, Ristolainen came in as a kid and has been part of all of this continuous losing. And multiple culture overhauls. Most agree that Ristolainen should not be judged by his plus/minus rating and other analytic stats. He forced into way too much ice-time because the defense has been so bad. He carried too much responsibility too soon as he drew the other teams top lines on a nightly basis. Despite all that, he has continued to put points up offensively and he has shown his elite ability to move the puck. In addition, he plays physical with his size and athleticism.
Finding a player with his skill set and upside is very rare. But because they have been the worst team of the past seven years, he has not been coached to his potential. I am still on board with trading him to upgrade the offense as a fresh start could do him well. I think the team is heading in the right direction, but there is no guarantee it will happen any time soon. The culture should be improved with the new head coach and the lineup turnover, but that is just a hope right now. A mere optimistic prediction from a fan. Ultimately, the culture could be worse and the team could lose yet again.
At this point, the best thing to do is to move on Ristoleinen and let him have his fresh start in a different organization. His pure talent, youth, and experience should command a really good NHL player back in return. Again, it would be nice seeing him stay here and be great, but he has lost so much and struggled too often on a team that has done the same. He was not set up for success in Buffalo. So now, I am one of the many who are on board with moving him. Unlike in years past as i did not want to part with him and watch another player succeed elsewhere.
One small request of the Sabres management. Please win the trade. Or, at the very least, break even. DO not lose it. Please don’t trade him for a handful of hopeful prospects. The Sabres have earned plenty of those. GET AN NHL PLAYER! A player proven he can play in the league. And then, maybe, we can start talking about the playoffs.