When Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher acquired Rasmus Ristolainen from the Buffalo Sabres for Robert Hagg, the 14th overall pick in 2021 and a second-round pick in 2023, fans were rightfully confused. The production from the 6-foot-4 right-handed defenseman didn’t back up things being said about him around plenty of hockey circles.
The good news for Flyers fans was that if Ristolainen didn’t perform up to expectations, he only had one more year left on his contract. That was until Fletcher decided the job was being done well and felt keeping him around was the best course of action.
On March 10th, he was signed to a 5-year, $25.5 million dollar extension with the team, worth $5.1 million annually, which sent the already spiraling fanbase into an even more angry state. Their reasoning wasn’t wrong either, as through 49 games he had only produced 13 points with some suspect underlying numbers as well.
That carried on through the rest of the season. Ristolainen only scored 3 more points over the next 17 games, bringing him to a season total of 16 in 66 games. He averaged 21:26 of time on ice, and as many expected, led the team in hits by a very large margin with an even 230.
Ristolainen ended the season with some peculiar advanced numbers according to Evolving-Hockey. He finished 13th on the Flyers in expected goals for percentage when teams were 5v5 (xGF%) at 46.92. The biggest discrepancy in his numbers came when assessing his overall value with the goals above replacement (GAR) and expected goals above replacement (xGAR) statistics. In the former, he placed 7th among 21 skaters with at least 400 total minutes. In the latter, he placed 16th.
Below is his regularized adjusted plus-minus (RAPM) chart, which clearly doesn’t take very kindly to his defensive play.
As much as I am hestitant to believe that Ristolainen was the seventh best player on the team over the 2021-22 season, I’m not entirely sure he was in the Nick Seeler and Keith Yandle region of bad defensemen. I also can’t fault him for Fletcher giving him a contract that is objectively not worth the value that he brings. The problem that develops is when your best right-handed defenseman in Ryan Ellis gets hurt, and Ristolainen has to take over his responsibilities, which he’s not suited for.
He can’t control injuries, and there’s no reason for him to lessen the amount of money he makes. However, there are certainly qualms to be had with the way that he’s playing, and how the price tag does not suit the production. Despite being able to throw some monster hits, there needs to be improvements on his defense, especially if he’s a guy the Flyers view that can be a number one defenseman. Hopefully, with the addition of John Tortorella to the coaching staff, he can find some sort of groove and at least improve incrementally.
At 27 years old, Ristolainen has a chance to make a statement in the upcoming season, but if he doesn’t, the trade could continue to look even worse than it already does, not to mention how much more weight that puts on the other defensemen to pick up his slack. With new faces behind the bench, only time will tell.