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Evaluating Rasmus Ristolainen‘s Fit In the Flyers’ 2024-25 Lineup

(Heather Barry Images, LLC)

I think it’s safe to assume that the Rasmus Ristolainen trade hasn’t necessarily panned out as well as the Philadelphia Flyers had hoped for. Not only did they move out Robert Hägg, they also traded the 14th overall pick in the 2021 draft (Isak Rosén) as well as a future second-round pick in 2023 (Anton Wahlberg). That was followed by a midseason extension at cost of a 5-year deal worth $25.5 million.

Beyond the obvious issue – the cost of acquisition – there were a few standout problems with the deal itself. For starters, the previous regime had a very different philosophy where they tried to get their hands on as many reclamation projects as possible. However, the more pressing issue was placing high expectations on Ristolainen, especially considering the downturn his career was taking in Buffalo at the time of the trade.

There was a burgeoning market for Ristolainen because many teams still believed in the archaic model that you need big, hulking, bone-crushing defensemen. He was also a right-handed shot which is always coveted and many believed his game was playoff-esque even though he had – and has – yet to feature in the postseason. Just because there was a bidding war for Ristolainen didn’t mean Chuck Fletcher had to outbid everyone for the prize, but here we are.

That mindset, alongside the high cost of acquisition, forced the Flyers to place Ristolainen in situations that didn’t suit his game. He was no longer the 40-45 point, 23-25 minutes a night, all situations player that he was at the beginning of his career. However, because of the aforementioned expectations and the fact that Flyers didn’t have any other options, it was a recipe for disaster.

Noticing your mistake and rectifying it should’ve been a top priority, but the Fletcher regime decided to double down and extended him for 5 more seasons with an AAV of $5.1 million with a team that has notoriously been cash strapped and doling out big-money contracts to underperforming defensemen. It was believed at the time that the executives that were against the Travis Sanheim extension were in charge of Ristolainen’s deal; even more cause for concern.

John Tortorella was able to do something that his predecessors were not capable of doing and that was simply giving Ristolainen a role and sticking by it. He was no longer playing top-4 minutes and expected to shut down some of the opposition’s best. He was no longer playing with an Ivan Provorov or a Sanheim, but someone who better suited his skill set. He had an established role on the team and was actually playing his best hockey in quite some time but the injuries have piled up over the years which has stunted his growth.

Ristolainen has yet to suit up for Opening Night in his 3 seasons in Philadelphia, he seems to be nursing injuries throughout the offseason that come to light either before or during training camp, and when he does come back to the lineup it’s short lived due to more injuries. He has played in 171 games out of a possible 246 and only suited up for 31 games this past season. He went down with a mysterious ailment in February and never returned before the Flyers announced that he underwent surgery for his triceps tendon.

Even amidst his struggles, injuries, and perhaps tarnished reputation, there is still a hot market for the hulking Finn. Trade interest has picked up at various times over the last year and a bit and with where the Flyers are currently positioned, it’s certainly something that should be at the top of their list. Rebuild or not, shedding $5.1 million off your books for the next few seasons for an oft-injured player needs to be addressed.

With Sanheim, Cam York, and Jamie Drysdale poised to anchor the back-end, Nick Seeler having signed his long-term extension this past season, and a slew of youngsters in Emil Andrae, Ronnie Attard, and Egor Zamula potentially ready to make the full-time leap, there doesn’t seem to be much room for Ristolainen. Additionally, the Flyers should be looking for ways to shore up their top-4 if and when possible, with most of the aforementioned players featuring as better third pair options for the time being.

Should the Flyers remain patient and stick to their guns – as has been the case with players like Scott Laughton and Sean Walker – and opt to keep him around next season, it’s not the end of the world. He still provides an intimidation factor that his counterparts lack, he finishes his checks, blocks a lot of shots, and is a staple on the penalty kill. Perhaps the most important aspect is that at the conclusion of the 2024-25 season, he will only have 2 years remaining on his contract, which is a lot more appealing with a rising salary cap.

A major factor in potentially looking to shed Ristolainen’s cap hit is based on their current salary cap predicament. It’s rather daunting to look at CapFriendly right now and that’s because the Flyers hold a lot of dead money and a few egregious contracts that will come off the books ahead of the summer of 2025. If they utilize LTIR and potentially buyout Cam Atkinson, they can save a large chunk of change but they still have to contend with Tony DeAngelo‘s buyout cap charge and retention on Kevin Hayes‘ contract. The Flyers might be forced to sit back this summer barring any seismic changes, but they should be well positioned for the following summer when they have to extend a myriad of players, including Travis Konecny, Tyson Foerster, and York.

Andrae and Attard have proven in small doses that they can hang around in the NHL. If Zamula and Adam Ginning return next year then that’s another two mouths to feed, but if Drysdale suffers more injury issues next season, other young players may be called upon and it may only add to the Ristolainen conundrum.

Should the Flyers stand pat this summer – as alluded to by Brière in a recent interview – then expect Ristolainen to return for the 2024-25 season entrenched on a back-end that is going to have to shore things up after a disastrous collapse that cost them a surprising trip to the postseason.

Flyers fan born in the heart of Leafs nation

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