Last year at this time, I was among the chorus of Flyers fans who were upset at the play of Rasmus Ristolainen. He had come over the year before in a highly controversial trade. Then general manager Chuck Fletcher coughed up a first round pick, a second round pick, and young defender Robert Hagg for the hard hitting Buffalo blueliner. He was immediately signed to an extension that would pay him over $5 million over the next five seasons.
It was thought that the young defender would be reaching his prime as a Flyer. Some fans decried that that was too much money and too man years to be given to someone who was, as of that point, a player who had yet to live up to his potential. Of course, you could argue that since the Buffalo Sabres hadn’t been good in years, maybe that was the issue. Maybe as part of a suped-up Flyers team, he’d thrive. After all, this was the same offseason that brought in Cam Atkinson and Ryan Ellis to Philly.
Nope…it wasn’t the Sabres. In his first year as a Flyer, he seemed out of place. Granted, part of the issue was that the Flyers, as a whole, were struggling under Alain Vigneault as head coach and, after he got fired, interim coach Mike Yeo. Ristolainen was bounced around with different defensive pairings, played recklessly with penalties, and just seemed sloppy. For Flyers fans who thought the deal to acquire him was a poor one, this just fueled their ire.
Last season, he started off the same. In fact, he was the first player that new head coach John Tortorella publicly called out as a player who needed to improve their quality of play. Again, I joined the chorus of fans who asked if it was better to cut ties with him.
We saw last year that Tortorella challenged some of his players to do better. Sometimes that included being benched in order to jump start them. For example, after benching Travis Konecny and Kevin Hayes after a poor showing against San Jose. Konecny took up the challenge and turned last year into his best one so far. Hayes took exception to it and began to sulk. Later on, so did Tony DeAngelo.
Ristolainen, however, totally bought into what Tortorella was trying to do. He quickly became one of the more dependable defensemen on the team. By the end of the season, you could’ve made the argument that, not only was he the most improved player on the team, but he might have been the team’s best defender. Some even thought that he should’ve won the Barry Ashbee trophy over Ivan Provorov. Looking at the start of this season, he was projected to be a top line defender.
Then he got hurt. Somehow during training camp, he got injured. The injury has not been disclosed. He ended up having an injury setback and we’re not really sure what is going on with him. In some ways it reminds us of what we heard last year with Sean Couturier’s injury where he is always “close to coming back” but then something always “happens” to delay that.
With Ristolainen out, the Flyers have had a bevy of defenders filling in. Besides the usual rotation of Travis Sanheim, Cam York, and Nick Seeler, there were others. Sean Walker has been playing lights out hockey and is leading all defenders on the Flyers in points…well, all defenders not named Sanheim anyway. Louie Belpedio, filling in when Marc Staal got hurt, had played very well and surprised everyone. Yegor Zamula has played fairly steady.
Staal’s return meant that someone had to sit. In this case, Victor Mete was sent back down to AHL while Belpedio was scratched. If Ristolainen’s return is imminent, who is next to sit? A younger guy like York or Zamula who need the opportunity to play? A vet like Walker or Sanheim who just may need a night off?
If whatever happened to Ristolainen is totally healed, I’d like to offer another option. He might make for a good player to trade away. It’s not that he doesn’t have value to this team. If he is fully healthy, he’d be a great addition to the Flyers if he can play on the level he did last year.
However, Flyers are playing well without him. The combos of Seeler, Walker, Sanheim, York, Zamula, and Staal/Belpedio have been holding down the fort pretty well. Some, like Walker and Belpedio have been great surprises and may complicate things moving forward. Young players like Emil Andrae, Helge Grans, Adam Ginning, and others are waiting for their opportunity to contribute to the Flyers.
All of this might make Ristolainen expendable. NHL teams can always use a defender. His biggest is going to be his salary as he won’t come cheap. He could be worth some good draft picks. Perhaps if the Flyers would be willing to eat some of his salary, they could get more for him. This, too, is an issue as Philly is currently paying on the salaries of Hayes for the next three seasons as well as DeAngelo until next year. We can’t constantly be paying the salaries of players who are no longer donning the Orange and Black.
If Ristolainen can contribute at the level he did last year, I’m all for having him take his place on the roster. But because of the success this team has had so far and with the success shown by some of the young players on this team, is he necessary to have? Has he become an expendable luxury? Time will tell. If Daniel Briere could find a good deal out there for him, it would be worth looking into. It’s not because he is bad. It’s more because Philadelphia may not have room for him any longer.