The case for Rasmus Ristolainen
Hello again, everyone.
For the last year, I’ve been keeping track of Buffalo Sabres hockey from afar, fighting with Game Center, looking at the numbers regularly, following all the smart Sabres fans on Twitter and so on.
Though I’ve been covering Minnesota Vikings football, my hockey obsession – the one that was formed watching Pat LaFontaine and Dominik Hasek way back when – hasn’t dimmed. I still follow all the major hockey voices in both the reporting and the analytics world.
What struck me most was the incredible gap in opinion between fans in Buffalo and hockey analytics writers over Rasmus Ristolainen.
Sabres fans feel like they are on solid ground with Ristolainen on the top pair, while analytics writers seem to believe he should be sent to the AHL.
There might not be a bigger separation in opinion on any player in the NHL.
I fall into both of those categories, having written hockey analytics since 2010. I’ve consulted for AHL, NCAA and NHL people on numbers and scouting, and have covered Rasmus since he first arrived in America and could barely speak English.
I’ll tell you what I see in Ristolainen and have heard from at least a dozen NHL coaches, players and scouts, then we’ll get to the numbers.
When Risto was sent down to the AHL midway through his first season – after a shocking set of moves by the Sabres’ ownership to bring in LaFontaine and Ted Nolan – he wasn’t happy.
There are two ways players take that type of demotion: The Luke Adam way or the Ristolainen way.
Adam believed he was a No. 1 center in the NHL and he wasn’t going to give a care about the minors. He was going to glide around until the team remembered that he’s super special. You can recall, his plan didn’t work.
(As an aside, Adam did change his ways eventually and probably deserved more of a look by the tanking Sabres, but then reverted back when he didn’t get that look).
Ristolainen marched into head coach Chadd Cassidy’s office and demanded Cassidy help him become a better player.
At first, Risto cruised around slow AHL’ers so easily that he was trying to take over games on his own. It was damn fun to watch, but Cassidy told him that it wouldn’t translate. He had to pick his spots or he would wear down too quickly. Within one game, Risto made the adjustment.
He only played 34 games as an Amerk, but finished as one of the team’s top scorers on defense with 20 points.
Remember, I’m talking about a 19-year-old player here.
Ninety percent of 19-year-old hockey players who eventually make the NHL are in juniors or college at the same point that Risto was putting up big point totals and making high-level adjustments against professional hockey players.
Here’s another story:
The Amerks made the playoffs that year. What a great experience it is for a young defenseman to see what happens when the competition is turned up a notch.
In the first game of the series, Risto had a terrible turnover that led to the game-winning goal.
When reporters (basically just me and Kevin Oklobzija) walked into the locker room and over to Risto, the first thing he said was, “I made a s— play and that’s never going to happen again.”
That story leads me to another story.
Before I moved to Minnesota, I had a chance to randomly talk for 45 minutes with Dan Bylsma on the air. It was a total accident. He was supposed to come into the WGR studios to cut a promo, but the person up front sent him into our studio thinking that he was making an on-air appearance.
Dan was super cool about it. He did a segment, then was excited about our off-air conversation and just stuck around because he loves talking about hockey.
Nothing went right in the Dan Bylsma era in Buffalo and he made plenty of questionable decisions, but from that conversation, I came away thinking that Bylsma was well-studied and a bright hockey mind.
I asked him about Ristolainen’s analytics. Why were they poor from the 2015-16 season when everyone in the organization is so high on the 6-foot-4 Finn?
Bylsma blamed himself. He said that Risto had been given far too much ice time for his age and size. He said Risto’s role as a net protector probably didn’t help possession numbers and also acknowledged that he shouldn’t play with a pure defensive-minded defenseman like Josh Gorges.
Wow. Problem solved. Risto is in for a great year.
But Tim Murray never got Risto a partner. He traded away Mark Pysyk, the only other capable defenseman the team had, and signed a low-IQ, low-skill defenseman in Dmitry Kulikov to play with Risto. Why? I’ll never know.
So on opening night, there’s Risto playing with Gorges again.
And remember that ice time that Bylsma said he was going to bring down? Well, at the end of the 2016-17 season, his ice time went up by over a minute, nearing 27 per game. That’s ice time made for light-footed skaters like Erik Karlsson or net protectors with a light-footed partner like Ryan Suter. Not a young player who is being asked to do it all.
There’s the background. Now some stat philosophy before we get into the hardcore numbers.
Hockey analytics don’t tell you if a player is good, they tell you if a situation is working.
Brayden McNabb – y’all remember him – is one of the elite Corsi players in the NHL over the last two years.
That’s because he spent a lot of minutes playing with Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and in an LA Kings system that throws pucks at the net from everywhere. Not because McNabb is the second coming of Brian Leetch.
All McNabb’s numbers tell you is that having him play a very simple role next to the dynamic Doughty was working – at least to win the shot counter.
That’s where Corsi gets even more complicated.
In general, Corsi means having the puck more often. In general, having the puck more often means scoring more goals.
But the Kings were the best Corsi team in the NHL last year and couldn’t score a goal to save the world from climate change.
They didn’t have many scorers and didn’t get many quality shots in the slot for their mediocre skill players, so they failed, despite controlling the puck.
Another thing about Corsi: Every team’s system and roster determines – not affects, determines – individual player stats.
With baseball stats, everyone plays the same way under the same rules for 162 games. All the stats are even and can be compared across the league.
Player stats in hockey can only be analyzed within the team.
The best example of that is Sidney Crosby. When Mike Johnston was his coach and the team’s roster was deteriorating, Crosby looked like his career was fading.
Then they changed coaches, won the Cup twice and saw him lead the NHL in scoring. Even the best player in the world can have his numbers altered by circumstances.
Another example: Brooks Orpik’s Corsi was an abomination in Pittsburgh, but was solid last year in Washington because they dropped his minutes, allowed him to face easier competition and gave him a partner that could move the puck.
Instead of saying Orpik was terrible, then improved, we should say he wasn’t being used properly in Pittsburgh and now has found a (far too expensive) role in Washington.
So, with all that said, here’s why Risto’s Corsi isn’t good:
A former NHL coach pointed out to me that Risto was “giving up the blueline” to protect the net. He would only do that, the coach said, if he was told to do so.
Now, if you’re the net protector, you have to rely on other people to do their jobs. Routinely during the season, you would see Ristolainen spend 30 or 40 seconds battling someone in front of the net while his teammates failed to slow down the likes of Crosby from cycling.
That’s the thing about Corsi: Forwards affect defensemen. If an inexperienced Jack Eichel is getting worked by Crosby, Ristolainen gets penalized, even if he’s doing his job.
Then when he did get the puck, say by winning a battle behind the net, he would pass to Josh Gorges or Jake McCabe and they would fail to start transition effectively.
I like McCabe, but he isn’t Jared Spurgeon. He’s more of a net protector type himself.
And because Risto played the whole damn game, he ended up getting ice time with all sorts of Sabres players who belonged in the AHL. He had a 37% Corsi while playing with Nick Deslauriers, for example.
By the time you go through all of the factors that could have affected his Corsi (including that he matched up against top-20 competition in opponents Goals/60 and played one of the highest percentages of Defensive Zone Starts in the NHL), what you have is waters that are murkier than Lake Erie in the 80s.
It goes against intuition to throw out numbers because numbers have told us so much about hockey and have many times pointed us towards underrated players etc.
Cody Franson is probably better than people give him credit for. But coaches have used him the right way. When he’s given an offensive role and with his minutes kept down, he can help create transition through the neutral zone with his passing ability. He’s also slow and gets abused sometimes.
But if you don’t know when to disregard bad stats, you end up thinking plus-minus is a great measure of defense or batting average is the best baseball stat there is.
Risto’s past stats are a bad indicator of how he’s played and how he’s going to play.
(Another aside, Risto’s scoring seems to go ignored in his analysis, but he’s one of the top power play producers over the last two years. Last time I checked, those goals count too.)
Everything is going to be different this year.
Phil Housley is the perfect candidate to put Risto in a position to succeed. I imagine him being excited to have a 6-foot-4, quality skater who can carry the puck, pass, shoot and play with edge.
Risto’s days of giving up the blueline to slam bodies in front of the net are probably over.
Risto is also going to have a new partner. More likely than not, he’ll play with Marco Scandella, a very solid, all-around player who has matched up against the best in the West for a few years now.
So what Ristolainen’s analytics told us was that it wasn’t working before. And the team fired the coach and GM who set up those circumstances.
After this year, we should come away with a much better idea of Risto’s ceiling and whether he can be a true No. 1 defenseman.
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