The New Jersey Devils should not acquire Rasmus Ristolainen because he's very bad at hockey

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Today’s post was written by C.J. TURTORO. You can find him on Twitter @CJTDevil.

This is the article that every analytically-inclined writer in the NHL has hoped they wouldn’t have to write. But, with the New Jersey Devils rumored to be interested in Rasmus Ristolatinen, I’m forced to.

Let me say off the bat that if they are, in fact, entertaining it, it’s not obvious that it will be a terrible deal; depending on what they feel they need to pay. Ristolainen is on the last year of his deal and we are not in a cap crunch at the moment so, if we don’t give up much, it’s possible that this is a low-risk move that turns out not-terrible, especially if he’s dealt at the deadline to recoup assets.

However, IF the Devils are entertaining this because they think Risto is potentially part of the long-term future of this franchise and that it’s worth giving up valuable assets to acquire, and then several million to re-sign, I ask the readership of this blog to flood the Twitter-sphere with profanity-laced pleas to Devils management to avoid making a franchise-defining mistake.

Ristolainen is probably the most infamous defender in the NHL among those in the public analytics community. This isn’t because he is the worst -- he’s been hovering around replacement-level for much of his career -- but because he is the most archetypal example of an overrated defencemen in the modern game.

He is a big, physical presence who produces gaudy counting stats due to largely to his big minutes -- particularly on the powerplay -- but is an absolute black hole in terms of the actual impact on the scoreboard due largely to his egregiously harmful 5v5 game.

He has such poor impact numbers that I won’t even show graphs here because 1) you can google literally any analytics site and he’ll look equally awful on any model, and 2) anyone who would be convinced of anything by a graph, probably already knows that Risto is one of the most widely-agreed-upon even-strength laggards in the NHL.

This piece is moreso meant for the analytical nihilsts. Forget the fancy models -- the WARs and RAPMs and Isolated Impacts. Let’s break things down to the only thing we care about: goals and opportunities to score them. 

In this piece, I’ll look at what has happened for the Sabres with Risto on and off the ice, if his usage made life harder on him, and top it off with a tape study on some actual plays that demonstrate what he actually does on the ice to produce these results.

Risto’s On-Ice Results

You may see a big physical defender that logs 20+ minutes a game like Ristolainen and be inclined to think something like “He’s the best player on a bad team so when you take him off Buffalo you’ll see how good he is”.

Given what has transpired over the last few seasons, it’s probably more likely that when you take Ristolainen off Buffalo, you’ll see how good Buffalo is.

Okay “good” is a stretch, but as bad as Buffalo has been in the minutes Ristolainen has been on the bench, they’ve been even worse in the minutes he has been on the ice. Below are Buffalo’s 5-on-5 goal rates with and without Ristolainen on the ice.

So, let’s say you think the Sabres are a bad hockey team (as you should). If Ristolainen is good, you would think that this terrible team would be somewhat less terrible when he’s on the ice right?

If Buffalo’s other options on the back end are bad (they are) what does it say about Risto if he’s unable to outperform the likes of Zach Bogosian, Brandon Montour, Tyler Myers, and Cody Franson?

As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened. If we use this year as an example, the Sabres got outscored 1.8 to 3.3 on average with Risto on the ice and 1.9 - 2.8 with him off the ice.

In other words, they would lose a game by a goal and a half if he played all 60 minutes and less than a goal if he played zero minutes. He cost the Sabres about a half a goal per hour. Given how often he played, that means he’d cost the team about a goal every 6 games.

And, just in case you’re wondering if there’s some sort of shooter or goaltender shenangigans in play here -- there’s not. If we look at how many goals we’d have expected from the shots and scoring chances allowed, it looks the same, maybe even worse.

The Sabres have allowed more shots and chances with him on the ice than off the ice in every season of his career, and his offense, which peaked in 2018, has since dried up as well.

The only possible rebuttal to such convincing, sustained futility would have to be that you believe he’s given a harder job than everyone else in Buffalo. If his job has an average difficulty, then underperofming the names I listed above is an unambiguously scathing indictment no matter how tall he is or hot many people he hits. 

So let’s look at that claim. How tough is Ristolainen’s usage? Who is he playing against, and where does he play them?

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Risto’s Usage

This is actually an extremely helpful year in testing the impact of a change in deployment because, while Risto used to draw slightly more than his fair share of tough matchups, that changed this season and the results stayed mediocre. 

The chart below ranks the most played forwards and defenders on the Sabres and their opponents and counts the minutes Risto played with/against each of them. The red line is what you would expect on average, and the bar is how much he actually played with that player.

What you should be noticing now is that he plays exactly who we’d expect an average NHLer to play against if we threw him in the game at random times. He is not drawing harder matchups than his teammates. 

To demonstrate this point, let’s use the most unambiguous top line that Risto encounters regularly -- the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak line on Boston. Patrice Bergeron played just over 100 minutes against Buffalo at even-strength this season. How many do you think Risto was on the ice for? 80? 60?

Nope. Ristolainen was on the ice for 26:34 of those minutes, which is just over a quarter of the time. That’s actually even less than his fair share of the minutes against Boston’s best line because, with 3 defensive pairings, they should each get about 33% of the Bergeron duties.

Boston is the most illustrative example of how unnoteworthy Risto’s deployment has been, but you can run that experiment on basically any top line and it’ll produce a similar outcome.

Maybe it’s not who he’s playing but where he’s playing them. Maybe he is getting disproportionate playing time in the defensive zone because his physical style fits that better. 

Lol. Nope. Guess again.

Risto starts in the offensive zone 11% of the time, the neutral zone 18% of the time, the defensive zone 13% of the time, and on the fly 58% of the time. So he starts in the defensive zone just 2% more than the offensive zone which, once again, is exactly the deployment you would get if you randomly gave shifts to someone on a bad team. That 2% differential means Risto has had the 13th-toughest zone usage among the 28 Buffalo defenders with 500+ minutes over his career. 

So to summarize: the terrible, awful, no good, very bad Buffalo Sabres actually get even worse when they put Rasmus Ristolainen on the ice despite the fact that the shifts he’s given are no more difficult than that of an average Sabre.

Tape Study

So his usage isn’t tough and the Sabres goal results are worse with him on the ice than with him off. But that’s all just on paper. When you watch the game is where what makes him special really becomes apparent.

Except he looks just as bad on tape if you pay attention to anything other than hits and blocks.

If you want something to watch for in Sabres game tape, check Risto’s transition game. In the 4 seasons that are in the Corey Sznajder’s A3Z database (2021 tracking hasn’t been added yet), Ristolainen been below average at entering the zone, exiting the zone, and preventing the opponent from entering the zone. And, in those last two, he’s in the bottom 5th of all NHL defencemen. He possesses the transition skill, both offensively and defensively, of a bottom pair defender.

This is an area of his game that consistently puts the Sabres in a position to play catch-up. If this is still too abstract, do me a favor and watch the highlights of this game versus the Islanders and watch for our boy -- #55.

In this game, the Sabres -- who still have Hall, Eichel, and probably vague delusions of a postseason berth -- lose 2-5 to the Islanders. Ristolainen has the distinction of having been on the ice for all 5 goals against. And you might think that’s just his misfortune to be on a bad team, but no -- he’s a key player in many of these goals. We’ll look at two here:

  1. Ristolainen is defending a zone entry against Barzal and Eberle -- he’s a bit ahead of partner, Dahlin, because of an ill-advised pinch, but if he slides over to Eberle or bodies Barzal it’ll be fine.

  2. He chooses Barzal, but rather than laying a hit like the physical defender his reputation would have you expect, he attempts a poke check and has allowed Eberle a free carry-in without taking Barzal out of the play.

  3. Now, not only has Eberle entered the zone with possession, not only is Barzal still on the rush, but Ristolainen is now in behind both of them with his body turned towards the boards completely away from the play.

  4. After being caught flat-footed by the failed entry, it takes him too long to recover and so he lumbers on over to the trailing Dobson and lazily swats in his direction as the Islanders score their first of 5 goals against Risto.

  1. Ristolainen has the puck at the blue line. He’s got a few options on what to do here and while none of them are great, they’re all better than what he ends up doing.

  2. Rather than dumping, passing it to the deep forward, or waiting to see if something opens up, he turns around straight into the defensive pressure and predictably loses the puck in the process.

  3. Now the counterattack is starting. Ristolainen skated back for about a tenth of a second before turning around again. Note that, at this point, he is to the left of everyone relevant to the play, and despite being the last line of defense for 3 rushing opponents, he is facing forward at center ice.

  4. He has now lost the play due to two bad decisions and turns away the rush to try and make up some lost ground which is impossible due to his poor acceleration. The breakaway ends up in the back of the net for the 3rd of 5 goals against Risto in the match.

I could also argue that he was behind the play on the 4th goal. And on the 5th goal he is the only one with fresh legs - his teammates just killed a tripping penalty that he had taken -- and he fails to clear, then lets Matt Martin walk right on in behind him despite his highly-lauded wingspan and physicality.

Despite all this, people probably didn’t blame Ristolainen for the loss in this game. You know why? He scored one of the Sabres two goals while they had an extra skater on for a delayed call. If you pay attention long enough, you’ll see a lot of Ristolainen absolution on account of point production. Although, you’ll see substantially less of it recently, and there’s a thoroughly unmysterious explanation for why.

He’s lost the PP1 role to Rasmus Dahlin, and with it, all the PP production. From 2015-2018 he put up 40+ points every season because he accumulated 20+ on the powerplay each time.

His low production this season is not a fluke or bad luck, it’s simply the reality of his play when you take out extremely advantageous usage.

It’s not that he’s getting uglier, he’s just had PP production masking his warts for nearly a decade.

Concluding Thoughts

Here’s a frank assessment of Rasmus Ristolainen.

The cinder blocks on Risto’s feet prevent him from being able to prevent opponents from capitalizing on opportunities created by the terrible decisions he’s prone to making in all three zones. He’s a liability in transition both offensively and defensively. The physicality of his game is an aesthetic distraction from subterannean hockey IQ. 

He has somehow managed to make debatably the worst team in the NHL over his career even worse in his minutes on the ice for them. If it weren’t for his absurd overusage, the sole marketable feature of his bio -- high counting stats -- would have never been inflated in the first place. To top it all off, at 26 years old, he’s already showing evidence of decline in what little value he had to start with. 

The Sabres are currently enduring the longest postseason drought in the NHL. At 10 seasons since a playoff appearance, they double the 2nd worst team in terms of futility (Detroit, 5 years). While no one has had to endure the entirety of that slump, Ristolainen’s 8-year tenure is the longest on the team. You know how sometimes teams add veterans because they “know how to win”? Well, Rasmus Ristolainen knows how to lose. He’s been doing it for eight seasons and is the face of the trainwreck that is the Buffalo franchise. 

Analytics schmanalytics. Watch the damn game. Rasmus Ristolainen is lost on the NHL ice. I don’t care if he’s 7’5’’ 300lbs and can bench press a wooly mammoth, he is a broken hockey player that costs his team goals in both directions.

Put all of this together and you get a very simple and unambiguous conclusion that any team would be insane to give up any assets at all for this lemon of an asset.

If you’re thinking at this point it seems like I have something personal against Risto, I can assure you I harbor no ill will towards him. I simply have a passionate opposition to my favorite team acquiring hockey players who are bad at hockey.

And Rasmus Ristolainen is very bad at hockey.

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