When drafted in 2013, Rasmus Ristolainen was said to be “built like a forward and possesses exciting offensive ability, but the foundation of his play is in his own zone.” Notably, he was given a player comparison to Tampa Bay’s own Victor Hedman. Safe to say that he hasn’t exactly followed that path. But the Flyers are starting to see positive results.
Philadelphia traded two draft picks and Robert Hagg for Rasmus Ristolainen during the summer of 2021. On the surface, it looked like a trade for players that played similar styles. Both were known as physical players but didn’t have much else that was desirable.
The Flyers then inked Ristolainen to a five-year, $25.5 million deal eight months later. That drew the ire of fans as they felt the Finnish defender was overpaid for what he gave the team.
Among defensemen who played at least 600 minutes during the 2021-22 season, Ristolainen ranked 104th out of 122 with a 45.52 CF% at even strength. He graded out a bit better regarding his play-driving ability while on the ice, coming in 76th. That was ahead of both teammate Ivan Provorov, who was right below him, and Travis Sanheim.
Ristolainen again found himself struggling to start this season. In the first year of his new contract, he was benched after just four games. John Tortorella was notably frustrated with his play. He was blunt in his assessment, stating that Ristolainen needed to be better in all facets of his game.
Ristolainen’s game has been much improved for the Flyers
The Flyers were essentially tasked with rebuilding Ristolainen’s play from the ground up. In his first season as an associate coach for Philadelphia, it’s been Brad Shaw who has done the work with Ristolainen.
And things have been paying off recently. Offensively, he has posted seven points in his last seven games after just two points in 37 games to start. He scored his first goal of the season whilst the team was shorthanded. It was the first SHG of his career. He is in the midst of a three-game point streak entering the All-Star break.
“I’m more defensive-minded and I like to take care of the d-zone and our net first. And then last few games, the puck’s been bouncing for me pretty well. So that’s been nice for sure.” Ristolainen said after his two-assist performance against Winnipeg.
Defensively, Ristolainen has drawn recent praise from his head coach.
“He’s been killing more plays and making better plays,” Tortorella said recently on Ristolainen’s game. “Shawsy has worked a lot with him. His stick is better. He’s been using his legs better. He’s moved the puck better. Just a little more under control.”
It’s a small sample size, but the Flyers are seeing the much-improved play from Ristolainen since the team returned from the holiday break. Since December 29th, Ristolainen has been on the positive side in expected goals (55.65%) which is third among Flyers’ defensemen. He’s just below the break-even mark with a 48.36 CF%.
The Flyers have limited Ristolainen’s minutes, putting him in more suitable situations. After averaging close to 23 minutes previously, he is now around 18 minutes per game. He has been on the third pairing with Nick Seeler and the two have performed well. They have the highest expected goals (58.98) among Philadelphia’s regular defensive pairings. They are second with a 48.75 CF%.
Again, it’s a small sample size and there is still plenty of time left in the season. But tasked with rebuilding Ristolainen’s play, the Flyers are getting the results they wanted. He’s not taking himself out of position to make a big hit. He’s limited his turnovers. And he’s even chipping in on offense.
It’s a good sign as John Tortorella continues to evaluate the players he has on his team and which ones are buying into the system.