Does Rasmus Ristolainen's Injury Change the Flyers' Plans?

With Rasmus Ristolainen being sidelined for an undetermined amount of time, with the Flyers trade plans be altered to make up for it?
With Rasmus Ristolainen being sidelined for an undetermined amount of time, with the Flyers trade plans be altered to make up for it? / Sarah Stier/GettyImages

The Philadelphia Flyers, amidst this surprisingly successful season, have enjoyed some quality play from their defense corps. There aren't any superstars back there, although Travis Sanheim has rebounded nicely, and the team hopes that Jamie Drysdale can turn into a first-pair stud at some point, but the depth has been impressive.

As part of this group of rearguards, Rasmus Ristolainen has done his part. The offense hasn't been there (just four points in 31 games), but advanced statistics show that he's playing his best hockey since he scored 40+ points per year as a 23-year-old with the Sabres. Now, however, the word is out that Ristolainen is dealing with an "upper-body injury" and will be undergoing a procedure that is expected to keep him out for multiple weeks and perhaps much longer. This vague update has shades of Ryan Ellis written all over it, and Flyers fans can be forgiven for thinking the worst immediately. At the very least, it complicates how the Flyers will approach their defensive group in the lead-up to the NHL trade deadline next month.

First, this impacts the viability of Ristolainen, who has been talked about as a trade chip for some time and has reportedly drawn some interest around the league. Yes, the Flyers would need to eat a chunk of his contract to offload him, but he has been playing well enough to make things palatable for several contenders. But now, unless Ristolainen misses the bare minimum of time and returns to the lineup without missing a beat, there is zero chance that any team would trade for him and the 3+ years remaining on his contract before this season's deadline. For better or worse, 'Risto' appears to be sticking around, making this something that the Flyers will have to revisit over the offseason or beyond.

One wonders if the Flyers would then pivot to dealing Sean Walker or if their nice buffer on defense has suddenly been removed thanks to Ristolainen's injury. Questions abound. Would the organization be doing a disservice to the players in the locker room or the fans if they were to trade away a viable player like Walker, who helps the club right now to obtain future assets? Is the team comfortable pressing Marc Staal back into every night duty? Or would they recall Emil Andrae, Ronnie Attard, or some other young player and expect them to play regularly during what is shaping up to be a playoff chase? It's not a case of "Do you sacrifice the present for the future or vice versa?" but Danny Briere, Keith Jones, and the team's brain trust must decide if the uncertainty about Ristolainen will impact how they handle other potential trade targets, such as Walker.

To that end, Nick Seeler now takes on even more value for the Flyers in the near term. Ultimately, is he "just a guy" replaceable by younger players within the system? At 30 years old and on an expiring, bargain contract, Seeler offers the Flyers a chance to recoup something of value between now and this trade deadline. He will never have this kind of cachet again, so a critical evaluation of the situation will likely lead Briere and company to conclude that they should move him regardless of an injury to Ristolainen or anyone else on the defense. Now, if a sudden wave of injuries should hit the D corps, all bets are off, but that hypothetical can't be considered yet.

In the end, look for the Flyers to move either Walker OR Seeler, but probably not both. Ristolainen's unknown status might have a minor impact in making the Flyers slightly more hesitant to deal multiple defenders before the deadline, but it should not be a determining factor. Nobody wants to see the Flyers undercut this season in its final weeks, but the future shouldn't be compromised just because of short-term needs. Maybe the club will be able to make the trades it deems necessary while still managing a playoff berth this season, but such a felicitous outcome might be too much to ask for. Time will tell.