Flyers’ Ristolainen Can Benefit From Scenery Change

Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher spent a lot of time remodeling the team’s defensive core this offseason. He landed Ryan Ellis in a trade with the Nashville Predators; signed Keith Yandle as a free agent to a one-year contract; and acquired Rasmus Ristolainen from the Buffalo Sabres in a deal that sent a 2021 first-round pick, a 2023 second-round selection, and Robert Hagg the other way.

Rasmus Ristolainen Buffalo Sabres
Rasmus Ristolainen was traded from the Buffalo Sabres to the Philadelphia Flyers. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While many praised the additions of Ellis and Yandle, there were those who criticized the Ristolainen move. He can be a valuable piece to the blue line, but he has to be used properly. Head coach Alain Vigneault and his staff are responsible for putting him and the rest of their players in situations where they can succeed. Before delving further into this, here is some background on Ristolainen.

His Buffalo Sabres Tenure

Ristolainen was drafted in the first round (8th overall) by the Sabres in 2013. General manager Darcy Regier focused on the blue line during that time, also selecting Nikita Zadorov with Buffalo’s 16th overall pick. Ristolainen played professionally overseas in his home country of Finland with TPS of the Finnish Elite League (Liiga) and developed his game through various programs tied to the club. Growing more and more as the seasons went on, he found himself suiting up for the main TPS team in one game in 2010-11 and for most of the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons.

He posted the following numbers throughout the different programs in TPS:

  • 2008-09 (TPS U16): zero points in 5 games
  • 2009-10 (TPS U18): 3 goals and 7 assists for 10 points in 32 games
  • 2009-10 (TPS Jr.): 1 goal and 1 assist for 2 points in 5 games
  • 2010-11 (TPS U18): 1 goal and 2 assists for 3 points in 2 games
  • 2010-11 (TPS Jr.): 12 assists in 27 games
  • 2010-11 (TPS): zero points in 1 game
  • 2011-12 (TPS Jr.): 4 assists in 8 games
  • 2011-12 (TPS): 3 goals and 5 assists for 8 points in 40 games
  • 2012-13 (TPS): 3 goals and 12 assists for 15 points in 52 games
Rasmus Ristolainen
Ristolainen spent significant time growing his game with different teams in the TPS program. [photo: Teemu Saarinen, HC TPS]

The 2013-14 hockey season is when Ristolainen officially made his way to the Sabres’ system. He split his first campaign between the NHL and the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Rochester Americans. He suited up in 34 games for each franchise, netting two goals and two assists with the Sabres and six goals and 14 assists with the Amerks. The 2014-15 campaign was when he officially became an NHL regular, and during his time in Buffalo, he always found a way to contribute offensively. From the 2015-16 season to 2018-19, he posted at least 30 assists per campaign and tallied his fair share of goals as well.

Ristolainen’s stats with the Sabres are below:

  • 2013-14: 2 goals and 2 assists for 4 points in 34 games
  • 2014-15: 8 goals and 12 assists for 20 points in 78 games
  • 2015-16: 9 goals and 32 assists for 41 points in 82 games
  • 2016-17: 6 goals and 39 assists for 45 points in 79 games
  • 2017-18: 6 goals and 35 assists for 41 points in 73 games
  • 2018-19: 5 goals and 38 assists for 43 points in 78 games
  • 2019-20: 6 goals and 27 assists for 33 points in 69 games
  • 2020-21: 4 goals and 14 assists for 18 points in 49 games

Despite his contributions, the Sabres missed the postseason every season he was there. The team had a couple of positive streaks when the league took notice, but they were temporary, and they ultimately fell out of playoff contention, including missing out on the 24-team playoff format in 2019-20 following a hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a summer of change this offseason, the Sabres dealt Ristolainen to the Flyers and forward Sam Reinhart to the Florida Panthers in exchange for goalie prospect Devon Levi and a first-round pick in 2022. Overall, Ristolainen produced 46 goals and 199 assists in 542 career games in Buffalo.

Turning His Game Around in Philly

There are a couple of factors that led to Ristolainen’s departure from the Sabres. First, the team culture is known to have issues. St. Louis Blues captain Ryan O’Reilly famously said he lost his love for the game in 2018 when he was on the Sabres. He was then traded to The Gateway to the West and promptly won the Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, and the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward in the league in 2019. He is one example of a player who found himself in a better situation after he left the Sabres’ locker room.

The Flyers have a strong culture with veteran leaders like captain Claude Giroux, Kevin Hayes, and James van Riemsdyk among others. They should welcome Ristolainen with open arms and make him feel part of what they are building and working toward. The organization should make a new player feel right at home, and that will allow him to feel comfortable playing his game.

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Another issue with the Sabres is they continued to hire and fire head coaches (Dan Bylsma, Phil Housley, and Ralph Krueger, to name a few) and general managers (Tim Murray and Jason Botterill before Kevyn Adams came in). Constant change can make it difficult for players to find consistency. With the Flyers, even if some believe Vigneault’s time in Philadelphia may end soon, their management seems slightly more stable than Buffalo’s. This should give Ristolainen the chance to learn the system and be able to stick with it for a little while, while their directional goal and team philosophy remain the same.

Buffalo Sabres coach Ralph Krueger
Ralph Krueger was the most recent head coach fired by the Buffalo Sabres, which occurred during the 2020-21 season. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

If this isn’t enough proof of the Sabres’ troubles, the hockey world is waiting for forward Jack Eichel to be traded any day now. The team failed to make the postseason in all six campaigns the star center was in Buffalo, and he has been fighting with the organization over a specific kind of neck surgery that he is requesting, but the team is denying. As of this writing, the Flyers do not have a player who wants out. 

Before the Sabres captain wanted out though, Ristolainen was already unhappy. There was talk a couple of years ago that the defenseman and franchise would part ways, but nothing ever came of it. During that time, Matt Larkin of The Hockey News wrote that Buffalo needed to trade Ristolainen and pointed out the benefits of what he would bring to a new team. Larkin wrote, “On the flip side, there’s plenty of reason to want Ristolainen…He puts up 40 or more points in his sleep…he’s got that great reach and, most importantly, he’s a right-handed shot. It’s entirely possible he flourishes on a better team with a high-quality partner,” (from ‘It’s time for Buffalo to trade Rasmus Ristolainen. Where?’, Sports Illustrated, 07/10/2019).

A high-quality partner is a crucial point. One thing Vigneault and his staff have to do is to avoid giving Ristolainen top-pairing minutes. I think he will thrive on the second or third pairing. Until they drafted Rasmus Dahlin first overall in the 2018 NHL Draft, the Sabres had Ristolainen as their number one blueliner. He was forced into that role, and it just did not work. The Flyers have a lot of skill on their backend with players like Ivan Provorov, Ellis, and Yandle. Ristolainen should be paired with a high-quality partner who can help him on the second pairing, which would give him less responsibility.

Along with Ristolainen, Ryan Ellis was another defenseman Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher acquired in the summer to remodel the position. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

I think a better locker room situation, the right role, and the right partner on the blue line will lead to a more productive Ristolainen. He could benefit from this change and reward Fletcher and the Flyers for betting on him if they can draw out his strengths and make his play a little more consistent. Management was willing to take the risk for a reason. As of now, Ristolainen will be a free agent after the 2021-22 season, so if things do not go well, he can be shipped out at the trade deadline, or he walks away from the Flyers next summer. Based on what they gave up for him, however, Fletcher must believe that Ristolainen is going to be in their future plans. This upcoming campaign is going to be pivotal for both the player and the organization.

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