Rasmus Ristolainen

Report: Jets’ Byfuglien believed to be contemplating NHL future

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Dustin Byfuglien, currently taking a personal leave of absence away from the Winnipeg Jets, is believed using his time away from the team to contemplate his NHL future, according to a report from TSN’s Bob McKenzie.

There is currently no timetable for his decision.

Neither the Jets or Byfuglien’s representation were willing to comment.

When it was initially revealed by the team that Byfuglien would not be with them at the start of training camp, head coach Paul Maurice said there was nothing “sinister” at play and that Byfuglien and his family were healthy.

Byfuglien has two years remaining on a five-year contract that pays him $7.6 million per season.

TSN’s Frank Seravalli outlined the Jets’ roster options for how to handle the situation, and it could be any one of three different scenarios. If the Jets list him as an “active non-roster player” he will not count toward their 23-man roster, but his salary cap hit will remain on the books. They could suspend him and petition the league for his salary cap hit to not count. The other scenario is Byfuglien retires and his salary cap hit gets completely stripped away. The added salary cap space would be important as the Jets try to figure out a way to re-sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor and fit them under the salary cap. It would also allow them to try and find a replacement for Byfuglien on the trade market if he does indeed walk away from the game.

Byfuglien has been a member of the Jets organization since the franchise was based in Atlanta and has become one of the most impactful defenders in the league due to his physical play, booming shot, and overall production. He had 31 points (four goals, 27 assists) in only 42 games a year ago for the Jets. In 869 career games with the Jets/Thrashers and Chicago Blackhawks he has 177 goals and 525 total points.

The Jets’ defense is already facing a lot of issues this season following the offseason departures of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, and Ben Chiarot. If Byfuglien decides to step away from the game the Jets would almost certainly need to make a trade to address another massive hole on a unit that wouldn’t even resemble the defense the team put on the ice a year ago.

Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen and Carolina’s Justin Faulk are two of the bigger name defenders that apparently available for trade. Both would be a downgrade from Byfuglien.

Along with the uncertainty regarding Byfuglien, the Jets are also still dealing with the fact two of their top forwards — Laine and Connor — remain unsigned as restricted free agents. Laine recently told a reporter in Finland that his linemates and usage are a factor in the ongoing contract negotiations.

MORE:
Byfuglien leave of absence adds more uncertainty for Jets

• 
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Previewing the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Significantly better. Colin Miller is an underrated defenseman who might be able to take on a bigger role than he played in Vegas. Henri Jokiharju provides another (eventual?) boost on the right side, possibly opening up room to trade Rasmus Ristolainen.

The forward group gets a boost from Marcus Johansson, and Jimmy Vesey if Vesey can take a step forward. Maybe most importantly, they didn’t lose Jeff Skinner.

Strengths: The high end of this team is powerful, and could get better, being that Jack Eichel is just 22, and Rasmus Dahlin is only 19. There’s also a little more help beyond the top guys than in 2018-19, where little good happened when Eichel, Dahlin, and Skinner were off the ice.

Weaknesses: Buffalo took some significant steps in improving the talent around their top players, but this is still not a very deep team. The Sabres badly need Casey Mittelstadt to make a dramatic leap as a sophomore. Even then, the bottom two forward lines seem pretty shaky, and their defense faces similar depth challenges. The Sabres also didn’t really address their goaltending situation, so they’ll have to cross their fingers that Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark (or someone else, eventually?) will work out better than they did in 2018-19.

[MORE: Under pressure | X-factor | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): From 1997-2013, Lindy Ruff served as Sabres head coach. During the offseason, Ralph Krueger became the fourth Sabres coach since Ruff was fired in Feb. 2013. The Sabres have missed the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons (plus 10 of the last 12), and haven’t won a playoff series since 2006-07.

Ideally, Krueger’s seat would be ice cold, but patience is beyond thin in hockey-loving Buffalo. If the Sabres suffer more from the same under a coach who’s spent the last few years more interested in the 4-4-2 in soccer than the 1-3-1 in hockey, then the heat could start boiling pretty quickly.

But there does tend to be a grace period when a new coach takes over, so let’s call it a five or a six.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Dahlin, and Casey Mittelstadt.

Skinner got his money, stunningly so, to the tune of $9 million per season. Now he’ll face pressure to justify that price, and he’ll be following up a season where he played a little bit over his head, as his 40 goals came via a 14.9 shooting percentage, the highest of his nine-year career. If he’s closer to his 2017-18 numbers (24 goals, 8.7 shooting percentage), there will be grumbling.

Dahlin was absolutely dazzling as a rookie, to the point that I was arguing that the Sabres should have echoed the Dallas Stars’ handling of Miro Heiskanen by giving Dahlin even more ice time, just to see if he could handle it. Maybe the Sabres will drop any facade of the “training wheels” being on in 2019-20? I’d guess Dahlin can thrive even in tough, big minutes — particularly compared to the Buffalo’s less-than-ideal other options.

Again, Mittelstadt needs to be better in his second full season. He came into the NHL with Calder Trophy hype not that different from Dahlin, and 2018-19 readjusted expectations … but a leap in 2019-20 could be crucial for Buffalo’s chances to compete.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Sabres did a lot right, and if Krueger ends up being a big upgrade from Phil Housley as head coach, then Buffalo could leap even further.

Unfortunately, the Sabres are also in arguably the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine Buffalo being in range of last year’s top three Atlantic teams (Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto), and the Panthers spent a ton to improve on what was already an impressive core. There might not be a lot of seats left in this game of musical chairs, and my guess is that the Sabres will find themselves stumbling out of the mix once again.

It wouldn’t be shocking if Buffalo stayed in the bubble longer than last season, but I’d say they’re more likely to play the lottery than reach the postseason.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sabres’ Ristolainen happy to be in Buffalo – for now

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen said he was happy to report for the start of training camp amid questions if he would have preferred being traded.

What Ristolainen couldn’t say Thursday was whether he’d feel the same way if he was on the Sabres’ roster come March, following the NHL’s trade deadline.

”I’m not a guesser, so let’s live in the moment and go day by day,” he said.

”I’ve been here six years and seen this business. You never know where you will be next week or next month,” Ristolainen added. ”I’m here now, and I guess I will be here tomorrow, look at the schedule and ready to work.”

His future in Buffalo has been uncertain since Ristolainen expressed frustrations on several occasions since the end of last season, when Buffalo extended its playoff drought to eight years, the NHL’s longest active streak.

Saying he was mentally drained, the 24-year-old declined to say if he wanted to return when cleaning out his locker in April. In August, he referred to his situation as being ”open” during an interview with Finland’s MTV Sports.

Ristolainen said Thursday he was merely expressing frustration over being on a team that’s yet to finish with a winning record.

”Things get rough and you get (angry),” he said. ”I was just telling them that year wasn’t easy for me. And I wasn’t blaming anyone else than, you know, myself. I’m hard on myself, and that’s about it.”

Ristolainen declined to say whether he has asked to be traded.

Thursday was the first time Ristolainen has spoken to the media in Buffalo since the end of last season, and he was fully anticipating the questions. Upon stepping to the podium, he greeted reporters with a smile and said: ”Can’t wait to see you guys.”

General manager Jason Botterill has sidestepped questions about Ristolainen this offseason by saying he’s had ”positive conversations” with the player. In August, he said wasn’t surprised by the comments Ristolainen made to the television station.

On Monday, newly hired coach Ralph Krueger said he looked forward to working with Ristolainen.

”I know there’s a lot of potential there that’s still untapped, and it’s up to me and the coaches to find out what that is,” said Krueger, who took over after Phil Housley was fired following two seasons.

Ristolainen was Buffalo’s first-round pick in the 2013 draft and has been the team’s workhorse defenseman since opening his third season in 2015-16. He has led the team in averaging 24-plus minutes a game while topping 40 points in each of the past four seasons.

Ristolainen’s frustrations stem from being on a team that’s finished last overall in the NHL standings three times and is now on its fifth coach since he arrived in Buffalo.

”Losing is frustrating for sure, but the way I think, when you go through tough times and losing, I feel like it makes me and makes us stronger,” he said. ”It makes us respect the win more. We’ve got to earn it.”

A knock against Ristolainen is his occasional defensive struggles, something he fully acknowledges.

”We all know I have to work on especially my defensive-zone game,” he said. ”It’s not my strength, so let’s make it my strength.”

Should he remain in Buffalo, Ristolainen’s workload is likely to decrease given the defensive additions the Sabres made this offseason. Buffalo acquired Colin Miller in a trade with Vegas and Henri Jokiharju in a trade with Chicago.

The Sabres have 10 defensemen who played 30 or more NHL games last season, with seven being right-hand shots, including Ristolainen. Zach Bogosian (hip) and Lawrence Pilut (shoulder), however, are expected to miss the start of the season while recovering from surgery.

Ristolainen is entering the fourth year of what’s considered a reasonably priced six-year, $32.4 million contract.

He said he is excited to work with Krueger and liked Buffalo’s offseason additions, which included veteran forward Marcus Johansson.

”I think the team is even stronger than last year. And last year, when things clicked those couple of months we were on top of the league,” Ristolainen said, referring to the Sabres briefly leading the league following a 10-game winning streak in November. ”That gives you a lot of hope.”

PHT Morning Skate: Werenski’s blueprint; Female referees gaining experience

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta still wants to own an NHL team. (Sportsnet)

• The structure of Zach Werenski‘s new deal could be used as a blueprint for future RFA deals. (TSN)

• What does the Werenski contract mean for Bruins RFAs Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy. (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

Alex Galchenyuk is starting to build some chemistry with Evgeni Malkin. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

• It looks like Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger is planning to start the season with Rasmus Ristolainen. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• What will the Blues bottom-six forward group look like come the start of the regular season? (St. Louis Game-Time)

• Barrett Hayden might be the most important addition for the Coyotes this season. (Arizona Republic)

• Female officials are thrilled to get NHL experience. (NHL.com)

• The Nashville Predators will look to dethrone the St. Louis Blues. (Predlines)

• The Lightning could easily find a way to use Patrick Maroon and Kevin Shattenkirk on their lethal power play. (Raw Charge)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Jets not sweating RFA deals; Orpik’s new role with Capitals

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Training camp is just days away and Winnipeg Jets forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor remain unsigned. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is not yet sweating it. (Winnipeg Sun)

• After winning a Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals, Brooks Orpik has taken on a new player development role with the Capitals and will work with defenders. (Washington Capitals)

• Sabres coach Ralph Krueger expects defender Rasmus Ristolainen to be in camp when it begins this week. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Darren Dreger believes that unless something drastic changes with Mitch Marner‘s contract negotiations before the third week of this month he is expecting the RFA forward to travel to Switzerland to train with the Zurich Lions. (TSN)

• Exploring some bottom-six options for the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. (St. Louis Game Time)

• After having no captain for the 2018-19 season, will the Vancouver Canucks name one this season? (Pass It To Bulis)

• Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby reflects as he closes in on 1,000 games played. (Sportsnet)

• What is Dominik Kahun‘s long-term upside for the Penguins? (Pensburgh)

• NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan talks Twitch deal, interactivity, and making fun contagious. (The Hockey News)

• Tampa Bay Lightning defender Mikhail Sergachev used his time off to see the world. (Tampa Bay Times)

• How San Jose Barracuda players deal with the high cost of living in San Jose. (EP Rinkside)

• Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid said over the weekend his knee feels great but he is not sure about his availability for opening night. (Edmonton Sun)

• Dale Hawerchuk takes leave of absence from the Barrie Colts for health reasons. (CBC)

• San Jose Sharks defender Erik Karlsson says his injured groin is “back to normal” after surgery. (NBC Bay Area)

• Another Anaheim Ducks perspective on that potential Justin Faulk trade we wrote about on Monday. (Anaheim Calling)

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.