The Philadelphia Flyers gave up a lucrative package to acquire Rasmus Ristolainen in July. They sent their first-round pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, a second rounder in 2023, and defenseman Robert Hagg for the former eighth-overall pick who underperformed for the majority of his eight seasons with the Buffalo Sabres. Their gamble is paying off quicker than expected.
Ristolainen, Flyers Punish Flames
The Flyers beat the Calgary Flames on Tuesday in exactly the type of game that they envisioned in their mission to get “harder to play against” this offseason. Ristolainen finished the night with nine hits, three blocked shots, and an assist. His agile play at the blue line to stop a clearing attempt set up a second-period goal by Kevin Hayes that tied the game. However, his contributions went well beyond the scoresheet.
Matthew Tkachuk and the Flames took liberties during the first period, especially in goaltender Carter Hart’s crease. Ristolainen led the charge to stifle the pesky agitator and his teammates in the defensive zone for the remainder of the game. He even kept Tkachuk from trying a flashy, lacrosse-style move from behind the Flyers net in the third period. When asked about his defensemen stepping up to protect the crease, Hart praised them.
“I love that. It shows how much we care and compete. Covering a couple pucks, they tried to get some sticks in there. And the boys had my back. I love to see that. I really appreciate that as a goalie.”-Carter Hart
Ristolainen played a similar role against an intimidating Washington Capitals team on Nov. 6. His reverse hit on feared tough guy Tom Wilson as the second-period horn sounded set a physical tone for a tight-checking third period and a Philadelphia victory. Flyers color commentator Keith Jones pointed out that Ristolainen is “starting to get more comfortable in a Flyers uniform” as a guest on the Jeff Marek Show last week. He emphasized the need for the 6-foot-4 defenseman’s toughness in matching up with bigger, stronger teams when Marek mentioned the “old school” style of the Metropolitan Division.
General manager Chuck Fletcher also spoke about Ristolainen on the Flyers Daily podcast last week. When asked about his defenseman’s poor tendencies in Buffalo, he admitted he expects it to “take some time to break those habits.” However, Ristolainen is playing at a high level that should please the Flyers GM after just 12 games.
Ristolainen’s Red Flags
Critics of Fletcher’s move to acquire Ristolainen pointed to advanced metrics as an indicator of his problems in Buffalo. Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner, and Sam Reinhart, three of his most talented former Sabres teammates, all suffered significant drops in Corsi For percentage (CF%), expected goals for percentage (xG For%) and actual goals for percentage when playing with Ristolainen on the ice at even strength from 2018-19 through 2020-21 ( from The Athletic, Flyers go all-in on Rasmus Ristolainen: Is he worth the huge price that GM Chuck Fletcher paid?, 7/24/21).
The concerns looked legitimate quickly when Ristolainen’s miscues led to two goals in his Flyers debut against the Boston Bruins. He followed it up with some sloppy puck control mistakes in the defensive zone in the next three games. However, he has already progressed significantly since.
Fletcher hoped that a new environment and a more limited role could help Ristolainen and accentuate the intensity and physicality he brings to the ice. In a limited 12-game sample size in 2021-22, the Finnish blueliner has a positive CF% at 51.82 and xG For% at 52.08 at five-on-five, according to Natural Stat Trick. His ice time has increased gradually since the start of the season, and he will likely continue to play around 20 minutes per game given the recent injury to Ryan Ellis.
Fletcher acknowledged that “there’s going to be ups and downs like there is with everybody” during his interview. Ristolainen will need to continue building chemistry with his offensively-aggressive partner Travis Sanheim. He will need to be selective in choosing moments to pick up the physical intensity. On Friday night against the Carolina Hurricanes, he took exception to a hit on Sanheim by Jesperi Kotkaniemi. He left his position to chase the Canes forward and allowed Teuvo Teräväinen a quality scoring chance in a tie game in the third period.
The Flyers will need to see sustained periods of high-level play before they consider expanding his role or extending his contract. However, the early return on the Ristolainen experiment officially looks tremendous due to his accelerated early-season growth highlighted by his physically imposing effort against the Flames on Tuesday.
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 no-namers like Andy Delmore and Branko Radivojevič. Colin also writes fictional sports stories and covers the Philadelphia Eagles.