What could Marc Staal and Rasmus Ristolainen’s returns mean for Flyers defense?

Oct 19, 2023; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Marc Staal (18) against the Edmonton Oilers at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 19, 2023; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Marc Staal (18) against the Edmonton Oilers at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports /

The Flyers are currently in the midst of a five-game winning streak and of one of the hottest teams in the NHL right now. They’ve been fortunate to not have any devastating injuries, something they’ve dealt with plenty of times before. And the injuries they have had, other players have stepped up in their places.

They will be getting reinforcements back shortly as Marc Staal, recently cleared, will return to the lineup on Thursday as he was activated off injured reserve on Wednesday morning. He has not appeared in a game since suffering a rib injury against the Oilers on Oct. 19. In the four games that he did play, he was primarily seen with Sean Walker. However, during practice, he was on the third pairing with Egor Zamula.

Staal hasn’t registered a point yet, and hasn’t necessarily been noticeable in any positive ways. The Flyers are getting slightly outplayed, but not by much, when Staal has been on the ice. They have been out scored 1-0, but that still isn’t enough to say Staal has been a complete liability. With him back in the lineup, there’s no reason to say that it will help or hurt the team as of yet. This move does appear to take Louie Belpedio out of the lineup. Belpedio was playing well in a limited role and even scored the first two goals of his career. But he was likely always going to be the player to come out once Staal returned.

Paired with Belpedio as an extra was Rasmus Ristolainen. The latter has not appeared in a game this season due to an undisclosed injury. He was kept off the ice for a bit due to a setback, but has recently been cleared for contract. That is a good sign as to how close he could be to a potential return. It won’t be against the Islanders, but it could happen this weekend. The Flyers likely want him to get a few full practices in before returning.

But with how well the team has been playing recently, who would come out once Ristolainen returns? Travis Sanheim is playing his best hockey and leads the team in both assists (14) and points (16). Aside from Sanheim, Walker has probably been the most consistent defenseman and is also playing some of the best hockey of his career as well. He’s been thriving in a new environment.

Cam York has been up and down and was even benched in the third period against the Kings in Philadelphia recently. But it would be hard to see the team taking him out of the lineup entirely. That just leaves Seeler and Zamula as the two options. There have been moments this season when Zamula has looked overmatched and he has come out of the lineup on more than a few occasions. He was also benched for a period of time in Vegas. The team is trying to win games, but John Tortorella has also stressed that he doesn’t want his younger players sitting for too long. So there’s a fine balance between playing the younger players but also trying to win hockey games.

Seeler is someone who has drawn praise from both his coach and teammates this season for his willingness to get in front of pucks. That competitiveness is something that Tortorella spoke about as something he likes in a player. He has four points on the season, all assists, and the team is actually playing fairly well when he is on the ice.

Coaches often don’t like to mess much with lineups when a team is playing well. However, Ristolainen is going to come back in the lineup whenever he is ready. It’s just a matter of how the Flyers defense will shake out when he does. Who knows, maybe someone will make it easy to take them out with a few bad games. But as of right now, the decision seems to be between Seeler and Zamula.

We’ll soon see who Tortorella chooses.