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Maple Leafs reportedly interested in Rasmus Ristolainen

Photo Credit: Heather Barry

Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Sean Walker has been brought up in trade talks as of late and Daniel Briere may be fielding calls on another righthanded blueliner.

Sportnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported in his weekly 32 Thoughts column that the Toronto Maple Leafs are interested in Rasmus Ristolainen.

I do think Toronto has taken a look at Philadelphia’s Rasmus Ristolainen, who has three seasons remaining on a five-year, $25.5-million contract. But, I don’t believe the Flyers are eager to give him away, and there’s no rush for them to do anything while their group is playing well. That’s not to say it couldn’t be something down the road, but when the team is competing hard, getting good results and generally doing what is being asked of them — why throw a stink bomb into your dressing room?

As Friedman mentioned, Ristolainen is still in the first half of the five-year extension he signed back in 2022. His $5.1 million cap hit may not be the easiest to move but there always seems to be a demand for righthanded defensemen in today’s NHL.

The Flyers traded their first-round pick (14th overall) that year, a second-round pick in 2023, and Robert Hagg to acquire Ristolainen from Buffalo back in 2021. Other teams were apparently willing to give up a first-round pick for Ristolainen so there is some hope that the Flyers would get a nice return for the blueliner after showing some positive signs over the last 12 months.

Ristolainen’s contract appeared horrific at first — especially since the Flyers were sellers at the deadline and elected to extend the underperforming defenseman instead — and while he’s still not the top-pair defenseman that some hoped, he improved last year under John Tortorella and is off to a solid start this season.

After missing the first 20 games of the season, Ristolainen has been impressive in five games thus far. He’s primarily played with offseason addition Marc Staal (they have a 70.3% xGF in 46 minutes together) with Zamula getting a game in there as well.

If Ristolainen can continue his improved play perhaps he can be a part of the rebuild and into the competitive years. The big blueliner will be turning 32 and entering the final year of his five-year contract when Matvei Michkov is eligible to come over to the NHL in the 2026-27 season. That’s still a few years away but the Flyers appear to be on track to contend by then — if not sooner.

On the other hand, if teams like the Maple Leafs — or anyone for that matter — are interested in trading for Ristolainen and his $5.1M cap hit, Briere should absolutely be listening.

Briere cleaned up some of Chuck Fletcher’s messes this offseason by trading Kevin Hayes and Ivan Provorov and buying out Tony DeAngelo. He even got back an asset in Sean Walker that should be flipped for another high draft pick by the trade deadline.

Getting out from under Ristolainen’s contract would give Briere and the Flyers even more wiggle room to shape and sculpt the ideal roster for the second half of the 2020s. The issue becomes finding a trade partner, and then finding a trade that works.

Even if the Flyers have a trade partner in Toronto, the Maple Leafs are right up against the cap and don’t exactly have any short-term albatross contracts that the Flyers can take back. If anything, T.J. Brodie ($5M, pending UFA) would be the name to look at money-wise, but he’s been playing top-line minutes for Toronto. And that may require the Flyers to give back another defenseman (Nick Seeler?) with Ristolainen since the Maple Leafs’ defensive depth is as shallow as a kiddie pool right now.

That may not be completely out of the realm of possibility, though. The Maple Leafs reportedly were looking at trading for both Nikita Zadorov and Chris Tanev from the Flames before Big Z got dealt to Vancouver. The Flyers have Walker and Seeler as pending free agents. That pair could be dealt together to get a bit of a sweeter return or they could trade one of them with Ristolainen if Toronto so desired.

And then there’s the fact that the Flyers are playing well, as Friedman mentioned. If Philadelphia is still in the playoff race in February, Briere may not be keen to straight-up sell. The Flyers probably wouldn’t be buyers per se, but there could be some buying and selling by making “hockey trades” for the future.

It’s still plenty early and there are three months until the trade deadline, but keep an eye on Ristolainen rumors as we get into the new year.

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