The Philadelphia Flyers inked 27-year-old defenseman Rasmus Ristolain to a five-year extension worth $25.5 million ($5.1 million in average annual value) on Thursday.
The 6-foot-4 blueliner is playing in the final year of his current six-year, 32.4 million deal he signed with the Buffalo Sabres in 2016. He has recorded two goals and 11 assists in 49 games during his first season in Philadelphia in 2021-22. The deal ends the previous speculation that the Flyers would deal him to a playoff contender ahead of the NHL trade deadline on March 21.
Ristolainen in First Season with Flyers
General manager Chuck Fletcher acquired Ristolainen for a package that he later admitted was a big haul for a player who had struggled relatively consistently with the Sabres for the first eight seasons of his NHL career. However, Fletcher was willing to part ways with the 14th overall pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, a second-round draft pick in 2023, and depth piece Robert Hagg in favor of a physical right-handed defenseman who played with the type of intensity and competitive edge that Philadelphia lacked in 2020-21.
The Flyers have plummeted in cringe-worthy fashion this season, and they currently sit last in the Metropolitan Division. Ristolainen has experienced his highs and lows, but he has shown enough positive signs in the opinions of Fletcher and the rest of the organization for a player they knew would be somewhat of a project.
“We’re going to have to give this a couple months, and it may take time to form chemistry between the two (Ristolainen and defensive partner Travis Sanheim), and there’s going to be ups and downs like there is with everybody, and let’s just be patient.”-Chuck Fletcher (11/9/2021)
Ristolainen’s selection of opportunities to pinch in the offensive zone has room for improvement, and his inability to drive play in Buffalo hasn’t miraculously corrected itself. His expected goals share (xGF%) of 47.08 and Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 47.80 aren’t ideal for a defenseman who’s paid so handsomely.
However, the respective metrics are among the highest of his career, and he provides a fitting example of a player whose contributions aren’t fully measured by analytics. His usage as a second-pair defenseman has helped him ease into a more suitable role than he played for the Sabres. His average time on ice (ATOI) of 21:22 is his lowest since the 2015-16 season.
Flyers See Future Fit
Ristolainen has brought the physical edge that the Flyers hoped for. His performance against the Washington Capitals on Feb. 26 best demonstrated what he brings to the table against a Metropolitan Division opponent known for physical play, especially by notorious bruiser Tom Wilson. Interim coach Mike Yeo lauded the performance after the game, saying that it “doesn’t seem to take much to drag him into the fight” for an intense division rivalry game.
The Flyers have placed an emphasis on becoming “harder to play against” this season. Yeo pointed to “physicality, how you defend, how you play with the puck” as key elements to achieving that goal. The organization will count on their newly-extended Finnish blueliner to bring those elements to the team. Yeo has recently inserted Ristolainen onto a struggling power-play unit to play in front of the opposing net. He hopes for Ristolainen to “establish position in front of the net” and “make things real difficult for the (opposing) goalie.”
The Flyers will still hope for gradual improvement from Ristolainen, but his chemistry with Travis Sanheim has developed well in recent months. The two have been the best defensive pair on the team this season. Ristolainen has also built a strong reputation among teammates. His playful rivalry with 5-foot-8 Cam Atkinson led to a moment of laughter in the Flyers media room last week.
The Flyers ultimately decided that their project was worth continuing after the big haul they gave up for him in July. He will play second-pair minutes for the foreseeable future in Philadelphia, as the Flyers hope to “aggressively retool” to get back into the conversation as contenders in 2022-23.
Colin Newby is a freelance journalist from Delaware County, PA covering the Philadelphia Flyers for The Hockey Writers. He is an encyclopedia of useless sports knowledge with an uncanny ability to rattle off Flyers goaltending stats from 2004 and every Stanley Cup winner during his lifetime. The depths of his knowledge stem from spending his entire life following the Flyers and the NHL, from fan favorites like the “Legion of Doom” and Claude Giroux to forgotten journeymen like Andy Delmore and Branko Radivojevič. Colin also covers the Philadelphia Eagles and works for 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia.