Rasmus Ristolainen’s setback creates more questions for Flyers defense

Oct 2, 2023; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (55) against the Boston Bruins at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 2, 2023; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (55) against the Boston Bruins at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports /

When Marc Staal suffered an upper-body injury against the Edmonton Oilers, it seemed as if it was going to cause trouble for the Flyers. But Rasmus Ristolainen, who had not appeared in a regular season game, had been skating on his own and appeared to be nearing a return. That return coincided with Staal’s absence, giving Philadelphia an easy fix.

Except Ristolainen didn’t join the Flyers on their trip to Dallas and Las Vegas. In fact, he stopped skating recently in what has now been admitted as a setback. While the nature of his injury is still unknown, there is now no timetable on his return to the ice as well. That much became clear ahead of the Flyers matchup against the undefeated Vegas Golden Knights.

"“We’re in the process of trying to figure it out, but it didn’t go in the right direction. We thought it was getting better and now we’re not sure where it’s at.” John Tortorella said."

With Ristolainen still sidelined, the Flyers only have six healthy defensemen on the trip. What the injury does do is allow the team to have both Egor Zamula and Emil Andrae in the lineup. The former has taken his opportunities and more than proven to the Flyers that he belongs in the NHL. The latter, who is in his first full professional season, has had a bumpy ride thus far. But he will now get a chance to be in the lineup game in and game out to work out the kinks.

Whether or not that’s a good decision is yet to be seen. The Flyers won’t have to think about sending Andrae back down to the Phantoms or if struggling in the NHL is the right call just yet. Andrae, known to be an offensive defenseman, has yet to record a shot on net. The Flyers are heavily outplayed in every category with Andrae on the ice, his 35.71 CF% by far the worst amongst all Philadelphia skaters. The Flyers have only been out scored 3-2 with Andrae out there, but the numbers don’t favor them either way.

Andrae made it hard on the Flyers to send him down after the preseason. He earned his way onto this roster. But with the way he is struggling to hang on at this level, the Flyers may have to look at whether or not this is good for his development. Even with Ristolainen’s injury, there are other options that the team can look towards in his absence. Players like Ronnie Attard, Adam Ginning, and Victor Mete are all waiting in the wings for their chance to play in the NHL again.

"“Emil is a guy that we have tremendous interest in, but as you go through it, you have to ask yourself what is the best thing right now for him as we keep on going here,” Tortorella said on Tuesday afternoon. “We’ll have those discussions after we play this game. We’ve had them all through the games, and we’ll see where it goes.”"

There is a fine balance between the Flyers turning things over to their younger players to develop versus letting them make mistake after mistake at risk of their confidence. Floundering for too long at this level can cause more harm than good. As Tortorella said, there is certainly going to be conversation and that could lead to some changes on the backend. While they can risk holding only six defensemen at home, they likely don’t want to continue to travel that way. Could that force them to finally make a decision on carrying three goaltenders?

Cap space is tight as the Flyers have just under 950K to work with at the moment. Attard (850K), Mete  (775K), or Ginning ($883,750) can be recalled without the team having to make another move. But that would leave them dangerously close to having no space at all in case of an emergency. The Flyers clearly don’t want to risk losing Felix Sandstrom on waivers, but his 775K could create a small amount of breathing room. This could also force the Flyers hand of moving Ryan Ellis onto LTIR to create a larger amount of cap space.

Banking space for as long as they can is the goal, but injuries to two defensemen have left them with more questions than answers. The cap crunch has gotten tighter, time to find out what the Flyers are willing to do.

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