Connect with us


Ristolainen a Pleasant Surprise Since Being Thrusted Onto Top Pair

(Heather Barry Images, LLC)

John Tortorella’s system is simple – you play well, you’re going to get rewarded. The opposite works as well and he will let you know when you’re not performing up to task and so far this season he has shown both sides, warranted or not. Earlier in the year he benched Travis Konecny and Kevin Hayes in the third period of a tight contest against the San Jose Sharks. He benched Wade Allison and Morgan Frost soon after. He called out Rasmus Ristolainen for his subpar performance and then he scratched Tony DeAngelo.

One person’s misery does become another person’s opportunity for the 2022-23 Philadelphia Flyers as – in their absence – players like Owen Tippett, Lukas Sedlak, Noah Cates, Zack MacEwen, and now Ristolainen have staked much larger roles on the team than last year or than anticipated.

The Flyers have tried every combination under the sun 29 games into the season after starting the year without Sean Couturier, Ryan Ellis, Cam Atkinson, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Patrick Brown. Add in the in-season injuries to James van Riemsdyk, Scott Laughton, and Travis Konecny and things spiralled out of control offensively – a helping hand as to why they are last in the NHL in goals per game.

Defensively, the Flyers stayed away from messing with the combinations they had. Ristolainen started the season on the shelf so when he came back into the lineup, the Flyers were hesitant on giving him a top-4 role. Ivan Provorov and Tony DeAngelo were at the top and Travis Sanheim found a niche with the defensively-minded Justin Braun. That’s why in his first 12 games this season, Ristolainen only averaged 16:12 of ice time and only played more than 20 minutes once.

At the same time this was happening, Tony DeAngelo was averaging 25:11 of time on ice, the most for any skater wearing the Orange and Black. Then he started playing a little less than usual and averaged almost 4 minutes less in the 6 games that preceded him becoming a healthy scratch. Ristolainen took his spot on the top pair with Provorov and DeAngelo still manned the top power play unit, but he found himself playing Nick Seeler.

Compared to how he started the season, DeAngelo’s play was diminishing a little but in his defence, he is an offensive-minded defenseman first and foremost. The Flyers pegged him as the replacement for Ryan Ellis the moment they made the trade and dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s on his subsequent contract. They said that his time in Carolina, as short as it was, made them realize he has the capabilities of being a top-pair defenseman.

There is no denying that he had a fantastic year in 2021-22, scoring 10 goals and chipping in with 41 assists, while being a +30, and averaging a then-career-high 19:49 of ice time. What the Flyers failed to prioritize was the fact that he was playing with Jaccob Slavin for a majority of the season. Ryan Ellis is essentially the closest thing to Slavin that the Flyers had (have) and to believe that he could be thrusted into that role and then some on a Flyers team that doesn’t even come close to Carolina – systematically, defensively, talent-wise – was absurd and not fair for DeAngelo.

What ended up happening in typical Flyers fashion was that DeAngelo did very well – maybe better than some expected – to start the season. However, when thrusted into more shifts, more minutes, and a more defensive minded role, he ultimately suffered a setback. Which then explains his play after that point and his subsequent press box apperances.

Ristolainen, on the other hand, was applauded by Tortorella and Chuck Fletcher a week or so after being called out by his head coach to play better. He saw the pine after a not-so-great performance against the Toronto Maple Leafs but returned to play the St. Louis Blues after a one-game absence. The issue with trying to analyze Ristolainen’s play is that you have to delineate player versus contract/expectations.

We know everything there is to know about his trade, the price of acquisition, then a 5-year extension after a very poor 2021-22 season. Expectations were low when the trade occurred because analytics dictated that he was one of the worst defensemen in the league. Then we saw him play and you either had people quoting his analytics – which were still very bad – or those using the eye test and saying that he brought a much needed element to the team that was missing. Either which way, I don’t think the Flyers needed to mortgage 5 years and $5.1 million per year for a defenseman who has lost a lot of footing from his more successful days in Buffalo.

He started the season averaging about 16 minutes in his first 12 games with one healthy scratch and then after showing Tortorella that he could be relied upon, he was given the opportunity to play alongside Provorov. In the 10 games that have proceeded, he has averaged almost 5 more minutes per game and kind of looks like the better partner for Provorov than anyone else on the back-end at the moment.

He might never be the player the Flyers thought they were acquiring, he probably will never be the player that scored 40+ points in 4 consecutive seasons and 33+ in 5 straight years, and as a member of the Flyers he will never come close to his 26+ average ice time seasons that he had in Buffalo. That’s the player the Flyers thought they were acquiring, that’s the player the Flyers thought they could bring back from the dead, and that was the player that the Flyers doubled down on when giving him his extension.

His final years in Buffalo were tough, he was the scapegoat on defence for a lot of it, his role diminished as he went from averaging 26+ minutes to about 22 by the end, and his power play time decreased as evidenced by his point totals going from 45 to 33 to 18. The Sabres weren’t a good team but you can’t hide from the analytics that showed he wasn’t the first rounder the Sabres thought they were drafting. The Flyers tried morphing him into that player but they failed. His role is completely different, he has no offensive prowess anymore, and is stationed as a defensive defenseman. Instead of trying to unlock that potential they keep him far and away from it, evidenced by his 0 points in 22 games so far this season.

In his rookie season he recorded his first point in his 9th game, in 2014-15 he recorded his first point in his 15th game, in 2015-16 he had 4 goals and 13 points by his 22nd game, the following season he had 11 points in his first 22 games, then 9 points the next year, and 12 points the next. In those same years he took 31 shots, 26, 59, 52, 60, and 49 shots compared to his 20 in 2022-23. Even last year when the pressure was on to prove the doubters wrong, he only mustered 5 points and 33 shots in his first 22 games.

The majority of his points came on the power play and he averaged 183 power play minutes between 2014-15 and 2019-20 and almost 254 minutes between 2015-16 and 2018-19. In those 6 years he scored 13 power play goals and added 91 power play assists, and then even more specifically he scored 7 power play goals and added 79 power play helpers in those 4 years between 2015-16 and 2018-19. That’s the player that was worth $5+ million dollars and perhaps a first round pick. He was still throwing his body around, averaging high minutes, and scoring consistently and being a secondary option for a Buffalo Sabres team that lacked talent.

The Flyers never gave him that opportunity last year and it doesn’t look like he’ll even be an option moving forward with Tortorella and Rocky Thompson. He played 44 minutes on the power play last year and a lot of that came before the trade deadline when they used him as a net-front presence, in what looked like an attempt to boost his trade value – but then once they extended him to a 5-year deal, he was pulled off the power play almost completely. This year he seen the ice on the power play for almost 2 minutes and that was essentially at the end of the man advantage when the coach puts out an even-strength line/pairing with the penalty clock expiring.

So what we have now is Ristolainen for another 4.5 years in what they’re hoping is a more defensively sound, body-checking, but responsible top-4 defenseman. The Flyers have tried almost everything to find a working connection with Provorov and they thought they had it in Matt Niskanen. After Niskanen suddenly retired, we’ve seen Provorov play with Robert Hagg, Shayne Gostisbehere, Justin Braun, Ryan Ellis, Travis Sanheim, Egor Zamula, Linus Hogberg, Ronnie Attard, Tony DeAngelo, and now Ristolainen.

The Flyers actually look a lot better defensively as of late as well. Provorov is as good as he can be, Ristolainen is playing a lot better than expected, Sanheim has found his niche with Braun, and Nick Seeler is actually a really good surprise on the backend. Seeler at first glance didn’t have a good 2021-22, but it seemed like Keith Yandle might’ve been the problem because now that Seeler is playing with either Braun, Ristolainen, or DeAngelo, he’s been a lot more responsible and playing his role to a tee.

By no means are they excelling, and by no means are they a defensive juggernaut, however they are playing as best as they can with what they have available to them. Cam York has entered the fray with his recent call-up and has entered the lineup in place of DeAngelo. It remains to be seen when DeAngelo will make his return back to the lineup and who will be coming out in his place, but for the time being the Flyers are playing as good defensively as they literally and possibly can.

That starts with Ristolainen being a good, aggressive, and responsible option for Provorov to do as he sees fit with the puck, then Braun allows Sanheim to play his aggressive brand of hockey which is when he’s at his best, and Seeler on the third pair has been seen and relied upon as a consistent option this year. Injuries, line juggling, and poor performances will alter these combinations at some point but this is the best Ristolainen the Flyers might ever get and if they can relish it, if they can bottle it up and keep it going, then maybe they’ve solved one of their bigger issues in finding Provorov a reliable partner that isn’t retiring, isn’t hurt, or isn’t similar to his style.

Who knows what the future has in store, whether or not they’re going to rebrand their offseason again as a retool or an aggressive rebuild, or if they go after another defenseman in the summer, but for the time being, Rasmus Ristolainen has been a pleasant surprise.

Flyers fan born in the heart of Leafs nation

More in Analysis