At this point last year, Philadelphia Flyers defender Rasmus Ristolainen was probably the most disliked player on the team by the Flyers fandom. It was pretty easy to see why. Until Travis Sanheim got his massive extension, he was the highest paid blueliner in Philly. To acquire him, the Flyers had to give up young defender Robert Hagg, a first-round pick, and a second-round pick. He was then immediately signed to a contract that would pay him $5.1 million for the next five seasons. It was decried as too much for a player who had yet to earn it. By taking on his salary, the Flyers also had to move fan favorite Shayne Gostisbehere for nothing to Arizona.
More importantly, when he hit the ice in his first season, he did nothing to show he earned it. While his production had slowed down during the COVID seasons, he had topped the 40 point plateau for four years running. He was also a defensive liability, putting up a +/- rating of -15 or worse in six of his eight seasons in Buffalo.
His first season in Philly was nothing short of a disaster. The 2021-22 season was a bad one for the Flyers and Ristolainen didn’t make it any either and he drew much of the fan ire. So did former GM Chuck Fletcher as he put together that team. Ristolainen scored just two goals with 14 assists all season. Meanwhile, Ghost Bear had a nice bounce back year with 14 goals and 37 assists in Arizona, and then Carolina. The comparisons couldn’t be helped but be noticed by the Flyers faithful.
The start of the 2022-23 season wasn’t much better for Ristolainen. He didn’t register a point until Dec. 23, with an assist against the Carolina Hurricanes. That’s 28 games deep into the season. He was also called out publicly by new head coach John Tortorella because he wasn’t meeting his coach’s expectations. He was also benched by the coach.
"“He just hasn’t met (my expectations),” Tortorella said last season. “I think he just needs to play better. … I don’t think he’s played well enough. He’s going to get another crack at it, but everything about his game, I think, needs to be better.”"
At this point in the season, Travis Konecny and Kevin Hayes had both been sat for a period and Tony DeAngelo was still in Tortorella’s graces. The focus was on Ristolainen, but the thing is, he responded.
That press conference was on November 7, 2022. Following that, slowly but steadily, Ristolainen began to improve his play. Despite his slow start, he finished the year with three goals and 17 assists; more points than the year before. The hits he doled out dropped from 230 to 162, but he increased his blocked shots from 125 to 142 and doubled his takeaways from 12 to 24. In short, he learned to play defense smarter. By the end of the season, his plus-minus rating was a respectable -4, better than the -9 the year before. Only Nick Seeler’s +1 and Justin Braun’s -1 were better than him for any defender who played more than 50 games.
Ristolainen may never become the power play quarterback we were told he’d be. He’s probably not the second coming of Ghost Bear. It seems that the soon-to-be 29-year old is learning how to be a better version of himself. That could be of immense value to a team that is throwing young defenders into the fray.
It’s scary to say this, but Ristolainen may have been the Flyers best overall defender last year. It’s interesting because just a few months earlier, everyone was wondering why was he still on the team with so many young and hungry blueliners waiting in Lehigh Valley that may actually perform. He took the advice given to him by Coach Tortorella, took his lumps, learned from it, and improved. If only Hayes and DeAngelo could’ve done the same.
Looking into the upcoming season, Ristolainen has a chance to be one of the major cogs on the defense. He can help guide some of the younger kids on the blueline on how to navigate their new coach and why you can benefit from listening to him if he chews you out. He’s also a great reminder of second chances and why you shouldn’t give up on a guy just yet.