Jokiharju Deal Sets Table for Big Decisions

Jason Botterill hasn’t been shy about making changes to his roster this summer. It’s the third summer in a row where he’s taken strides to overhaul the roster and this offseason has been defense-heavy.

His latest transaction was certainly the biggest surprise of the offseason, though the deal probably won’t be remembered as a blockbuster. Acquiring Henri Jokiharju in exchange for Alex Nylander saw a pair of former first rounders shipped to new locales under two different sets of circumstances.

Jokiharju had become a fan-favorite for the Blackhaws, playing big minutes early last season under Joel Quenneville. As players began returning from injury, Jokiharju’s minutes rolled back before he was loanded to the Finnish World Juniors team and then Rockford, following Jeremy Colliton’s hiring.

There were be questions about Jokiharju’s long-term outlook with the Blackhawks with Adam Boqvist and Ian Mitchell in the pipeline. But he still won a whole lot of favor early on, with many seeing him as a star in the making.

Unlike Jokiharju, who appeared to be a fan favorite for the Hawks, Nylander had really fallen out of favor with most of the Sabres fanbase. He had struggled to gain the footing to earn a full-time NHL job. Injuries played a big role in that and his work ethic has often been credited as another major contributing factor in his inability to stick in Buffalo. Still, he never looked completely out of place during his NHL recalls. Perhaps it was just an attitude issue and he needed to be in the NHL to give an honest effort – not something you’d care to deal with in your organization – but it doesn’t feel out of the question.

Nylander certainly wasn’t on anyone’s list of untouchables, but just based on his 12-game cameo it seemed like he was going to get an opportunity to win a spot in the fall.  Instead he’s off to Chicago in a deal that involved two players you wouldn’t have thought would be on the move just a few weeks back. In a way these are the best kind of deals because it’s a hockey trade. It’s didn’t involve futures for a player or leveraging a cap dump, it was a simple player-for-player swap.

It’s a little bit like the Cody Hodgson/Zack Kassian deal from a few years back. I’m excited to see the Sabres snag another good skater who has a good aptitude for driving play offensively. He’s shown the ability to manage zone entries well and his passing ability ought to make him a threat offensively.

This trade adds yet another body to Buffalo’s already bloated blueline, putting Jason Botterill into a unique game of chicken when it comes to his roster.

The general manager has at least 27 players who could or should play NHL minutes this season. That number could very easily be stretched to 30-plus depending how you many players you lump into certain roster competitions. That means Botterill and the Sabres need to trim at least three people from a roster that boasts nine left wingers, seven righties and six lefties on the blueline.

Most are waiting to see when and where Rasmus Ristolainen is traded to. It’s the shoe everyone is waiting to see drop and it would be a big first step towards clearing up the log jam on the right side.

A Ristolainen trade may have felt likely at the opening of the summer and now it almost feels inevitable with Henry Jokiharju, Colin Miller and Brandon Montour all added within the last five months. Ristolainen has been in rumors going back to the deadline, so it isn’t so much a matter of if but when for most fans.

Even if Ristolainen moved, I don’t think it’s a lock that Jokiharju sticks around for the entire season. He’d almost be guaranteed to start the year in the top six but once Zach Bogosian is healthy, Jokiharju may be on the outside looking in. Maybe Botterill is able to find a taker for Marco Scandella on a steep discount. Or Matt Hunwick. And maybe one of the righties plays his off-side in the short term. So simply trading Ristolainen doesn’t solve all of Buffalo’s number issues on the backend.

As an aside, I don’t think burying Hunwick in Rochester would be the worst idea. You may run into AHL veteran issues with the roster, but he’d be another emergency option to exercise along with John Gilmour and Will Borgen should injuries necessitate a recall. Worst case scenario is someone does you a favor and claims him on waivers.

The nightmare scenario here is that the Sabres play it safe (read: scared) and send Jokiharju down and Lawrence Pilut sticks around once he’s healthy because neither need waivers. I don’t expect that to happen, but I’ll never underestimate an NHL organization’s ability to run scared from losing players on waivers.

However, it seems evident that Rasmsus Ristolainen won’t play another game as a Buffalo Sabre.

Whether or not you want Ristolainen traded isn’t really subject for debate anymore. At least not to me. People on either side of the argument are dug in, so no one is changing their minds on the subject. So rather than spin in circles on whether they should or shouldn’t move him, it seems better to assess what could come of a deal with Ristolainen as the centerpiece.

The big question here is how much of the league is turned off by him. Teams that rely heavily on analytics (think Toronto or Carolina) probably wouldn’t touch him due to his poor underlying metrics. Teams that rely on more traditional evaluation methods might take one look at his plus/minus and walk away. So you could conceivably say that both eye test and analytically-focused teams would have negative opinions of him.

But this is still the NHL, and as I said above regarding waivers, I’ll never underestimate an NHL general manager’s attraction to big, toolsy players. Ristolainen is 6’4”, is a pretty good skater and he does play with a mean streak. Add in that he’s a right handed defenseman and I’m sure there are a few GMs out there salivating at the thought of adding him.

Tampa Bay has been the leader in terms of rumor mentions when it comes to Ristolainen and I don’t expect that to stop any time soon. They’re in a bit of a pickle with their cap and a lot of the players they might try to deal have trade and movement protection in their contracts.

Anthony Cirelli is the player a lot of fans want but I think he’s far too valuable to the Bolts to give up in such a deal. He’s still on his entry-level deal, so even though they’re in tight on the cap, they don’t need to worry about him just yet. Cirelli is exactly what the Sabres need and he’d be a tremendous pickup. I just struggle to see how Tampa would part with him. Even tossing in Ryan Callahan in order to eliminate any potential season-end bonus or overage issues created by using LTIR on him, doesn’t strike me as enough incentive to part ways with Cirelli.

I’m still struggling to get past Winnipeg as a partner for the Sabres and Ristolainen. Like virtually every other team, they’re in a bit of cap trouble and they happened to lose two righties out of their top six. They brought in Neal Pionk and have Sami Niku and Tucker Poolman pushing for jobs but Ristolainen would slot in pretty nicely behind Dustin Byfuglien. In return I’d expect Nikolaj Ehlers to be part of the package. He’s reported to be on the block and though he’s not a center, he’d give the Sabres another much needed weapon in the top six.

The rub here is that the Sabres are no longer flush with cap space. A one-for-one Ristolainen/Ehlers trade would fit under Buffalo’s cap without any problem. But it would only give the Jets about $600K in relief. For the Jets to really get some wiggle room, they’ll need to ship out more cap and Mathieu Perreault is the most popular name for that move. The Sabres don’t really need another body in that bottom six, but Perreault would definitely be an improvement over a lot of the players they’ve rolled out there in recent years. The Sabres would need to sell off Marco Scandella and erase at least one or two other salaries to make that work.

Jack Roslovic is said to be looking for a way out of Winnipeg. Perhaps he’d be the penance to the Sabres for taking on Perreault. Roslovic isn’t nearly as sexy as Ehlers, but he’s a young, speedy forward who previously projected as a center. He could blossom with the chance to play higher up the lineup than he did with the Jets. But I don’t think Roslovic and Perreault would appease many fans as return for Ristolainen?

The real prize in Winnipeg is Ehlers. He’s a left shot but has played both wing positions. He’s flirted with 30 goals and has 20-plus in three-straight. Imagine plugging him in on Jack Eichel’s right wing for the next six-plus seasons. Even with Niku and Poolman sitting behind Pionk, I’d be curious to know if another right handed defenseman would entice Winnipeg. Names like Casey Nelson or Will Borgen come to mind in that regard. Maybe one of those two helps get the deal over the line.

It’s hard to look past Ehlers given the style of game he plays and his ability to fit into the Sabres’ top six. He’s been a favorite of mine going back to his draft year. There are a few other names worth keeping in mind. Jason Zucker’s name is going be out there until he’s moved or his contract ends, Anthony Mantha was mentioned as a potential target by Elliotte Friedman and there’s one other team I think might just do the trick.

On Mantha, I think Friedman’s conjecture was confused as a firm report a little too quickly. Still, Mantha wouldn’t be a bad addition by any means. He’s played both wings, so you could pencil him in next to Eichel. His goal scoring pedigree is strong, so you could assume it would improve next to a player like Eichel or even Sam Reinhart. There’s a lot about that deal that makes sense from a Sabres perspective. And the Red Wings could use another right handed defenseman under the age of 30. We’ll see if Mantha winds up being a real target or if it was just heavy conjecture from Friedman, but that’s a guy I could see growing on me quickly.

One other move that you’d need to do some massaging to pull off would be a deal with the Pens to acquire Nick Bjugstad. Maybe even Bjugstad and Bryan Rust as part of a larger deal. You’d check off a center for the middle six and add a quality right winger to a thin position. The Sabres may need to find a center to toss to the Pens to help keep their lineup balanced but that deal could work for both sides. Given that there are so few teams with centers you could consider to be available, it’s hard to feel confident in what’s out there. But Bjugstad has an extra year on his deal, Rust has three and they’d check a couple key boxes for the Sabres. Just depends on how the Penguins feel about their roster without Bjugstad sitting in behind Malkin and Crosby.

There are quite a few moves the Sabres need to make ahead of October and dealing Ristolainen is number one on that list. And it’s probably written in permanent marker at this point. We’ll see how the deal shakes out, Jason Botterill could do a lot for his team’s outlook if he gets it right.

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