In a recent press conference, Flyers head coach John Tortorella said: "I know people want to run him out of town here, but be careful, be careful with defensemen especially You just never know when it clicks in." The "he" is referring to is Rasmus Ristolainen, the much maligned blueliner for the Flyers. It hasn't been an easy road for the 29 year old Finn. However, since Tortorella became his coach, his career has started to take off.
To be fair to Ristolainen, we have to look at his entire career. Between Buffalo and Philly, he had eight head coaches in nine years before he had to deal with Tortorella. Heck, in his first 15 months as a Flyer, he had three head coaches: Alain Vigneault, Mike Yeo, and Tortorella. That doesn't give a player a lot of consistency.
As a middle and high school history teacher, I can tell you that this can be the case in other professions. I once worked at a school where I was the third teacher they had before Christmas break. One got a promotion within the district and then they had a long term substitute for six weeks. Why would the kids listen to me? After all, other teachers came and left. Surely I would too. I've also seen teachers who ran afoul of principals who felt, "Well, I've been here 15 years and she is my third principal. I'll deal with her and wait her out. She'll be gone and I'll stay." If we can be like that in other places, surely this can happen in hockey as well.
Ristolainen came up with the Buffalo Sabres when he was 18. He joined a team that hadn't been winning in awhile. He was traded to a Philadelphia team that also had gotten comfy in losing and not playing up to expectations. He fit right into that. The team was a bottom barrel team with talented players not playing their best. Why try?
Then Tortorella took over and shook the team up. He challenged the players to play his style and fit the system he was trying to estabish. Some players bought in. Others didn't. Ivan Provorov didn't like it and quietly sulked. His heart was never in it, but he never made his complaints public (well at least not while he played here). Kevin Hayes and Tony DeAngelo simply refused to do what the coach wanted and then got upset when they were disciplined.
After all of the drama from last season, many forget that it was Ristolainen who ended up in Tortorella's dog house first. Looking back a year later, Tortorella remarked, "You watch Risto at the beginning of my first year, he was awful." In fact, he called him out last year, saying "He just hasn’t met expectations. He needs to play better."
Soon after that, he took off. He began to play harder and became, arguably, the best defensive player the team had. If anything, he was certainly the most improved.
This season had started off kind of rough for Ristolainen. He missed the first few weeks with an undisclosed injury. So far this year, he has played in just 12 games. In that time, he has blocked 20 shots; good for a tie for ninth on the team in one third of the games. He is tied with Travis Sanheim for eighth place in hits with 24.
Even though he has just one point so far, he has transformed his game. He was supposed to be a big bruiser who could score. So far in Philly, that hasn't happened. He's become smarter and more calculating. He's turning the puck over less, becoming a better defender in the zone, and still leveling hits without spending too much time in the sin bin and putting his team down a guy.
He may be overpaid, but keep in mind he is 29 and has a great tutor to teach him about the proper fundamentals of hockey. He has a coach who believes in him and is encouraging him.
One thing Tortorella is correct about is that sometimes it takes a while to "click". We see this with Nick Seeler and Sean Walker. Both were castaways that have found their place in Philly. Both have become a great defensive duo. Likewise, Ristolainen, entering his prime, could have several good years ahead.
Yes, the Flyers have some decisions to make defensively. Do they keep Seeler, Walker, and other veteran guys and try to give young players like Egor Zamula more chances to play? It's not easy. As of right now, Ristolainen has the coach's confidence and that is an important thing to have. More importantly, it is building up his own confidence and his play is stronger than it ever has been. Who knew that one of the best defensive pairings on this team is Ristolainen and Tortorella?