With rumours of Rasmus Ristolainen being on the trading block, the Toronto Maple Leafs should make the Buffalo Sabres an offer.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have clear holes with their defence, a position that has been an area of weakness for the team. While Kyle Dubas has been active this offseason bringing in players like Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci, there’s still much more work to do.
There are free agents still available that could help the Maple Leafs define their blueline. Available players include their former captain, Niklas Kronwall, Jake Gardiner, Ben Hutton, Dan Girardi, Michael Stone, Marc Mathot, Ben Lovejoy, Joe Morrow, Andrew MacDonald, Adam McQuaid, Fredrik Claesson, David Schlemko, Alex Petrovic, and Luca Sbisa.
By picking up a free agent, the Leafs don’t need to give anything up but money in return, meaning that they get to hold onto their prospects and picks. The trade-off of signing a free agent could be that they lose something even more valuable, cap space. By signing one of the aforementioned players, Toronto could very well overpay. Free agency is the opportunity for players to land themselves inflated deals, just ask a number of Leafs forwards.
In order to help solidify positions on the blueline, the Maple Leafs should consider making a trade. Specifically, they should consider acquiring Rasmus Ristolainen.
The Leafs should go after Rasmus Ristolainen
Ristolainen would be a good addition for the Leafs. The speedster has put up big numbers his last three seasons. Last year, he tallied five goals and 38 assists. His presence could add to the offensive potency that the Leafs already possess.
According to CapFriendly, Ristolainen has an AAV of $5.4 million, a reasonable figure for a player of his talent level. He is entering into the fourth of his six-year deal. Trading for Ristolainen would then give the Leafs three years of control.
The fear in such a trade would be that it eats some cap space earmarked for Mitch Marner. In a perfect world, those negotiations would have been completed by the start of the summer. Unfortunately, as they drag on, it makes getting deals. like acquiring offensive defensemen, more difficult.
Ristolainen was used as a primary defender in Buffalo. If he were to be moved to Toronto, that role would need to change. Ideally, he would slot into the second pairing and find himself getting minutes on the powerplay.
If that were the case the top four would likely feature Morgan Rielly (left) paired with Tyson Barrie (right). Playing behind them would be Jake Muzzin/Travis Dermott (left) next to Ristolainen (right). Mike Babcock would love this since each player would also be playing on their natural shooting side.
What the Leafs would have to give up
It’s unclear what the Sabres realistically believe that they could get in return for the Ristolainen. The Leafs have been accumulating prospects that could be used in a deal. They will multiple players trying to compete for spots on the Leafs blueline at training camp. A number of them could be included to help Buffalo replace the void in the Sabres lineup.
Toronto would realistically also have to break up some of their forward depth to get the deal done. The Leafs would need to either give up a goal scorer, a potential scorer, draft picks, or a combination of the three.
The Sabres would likely inquire about one of the Leafs strong young forwards and not just want their scraps. This is where Dubas and co. would need to exercise restraint.
The Leafs should NOT go after Rasmus Ristolainen
As much as Ristolainen would help the Leafs terrorize opposing defences, he still struggles to protect his own end. His metrics show that while he was able to help his team put the puck in the net, he wasn’t strong enough to keep it out of his own.
Ristolainen had a very poor even-strength relative Corsi last season. He was a negative player relative to his team with a rating of -0.8. It means that opponents were outshooting the Sabres when Ristolainen was on the ice, a sign that he wasn’t contributing to locking down his own end. That’s especially obvious when taking into consideration the 4.26 shots per game Ristolainen attempted himself.
What the Leafs need is stronger defence of their zone. They do not need any more scoring because they already have elite players upfront. Also, with Barrie now on the team, having Ristolainen would be redundant.
Though a $5.4 million AAV would be a good deal for the Buds, it’s consumption of the team’s cap space would not be offset enough by the exchange of another player. That is unless the Leafs willingly lose in a trade with Buffalo or get Marner signed soon to a deal that gives the team cap flexibility.
What the Leafs should actually do
What should really take place is a phone call. Dubas should be reaching out to the Sabres GM, Jason Botterill, to see what it would take to get a deal done. If the Leafs could get a bargain deal because there haven’t been other suitors, then it may be worth pulling the trigger on a trade.
Ristolainen is a very good player. If deployed properly, he could even develop into a fan favourite in Toronto. Also, if it means there’s a backlog of talented defencemen with the Buds, it would be a problem every general manager of the league would be happy to have.