The key to the 2024-25 Flyers defense is Rasmus Ristolainen

Philadelphia Flyers v New Jersey Devils
Philadelphia Flyers v New Jersey Devils / Sarah Stier/GettyImages

Three years ago, then Philadelphia Flyers GM shook the Flyers' fandom with a "blockbuster trade". The Flyers traded away Robert Hagg, a once highly touted defensive prospect who hadn't performed at the NHL level and a 1st round pick to the Buffalo Sabres for defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen.

This came on the heels of Fletcher trading away Shayne Gostisbehere for "future considerations" (i.e., nothing). The Flyers traded away a fan favorite and a first-rounder for a defender from a bad team.

When the Flyers then signed a five-year extension at over $5 million a year, the fans were concerned. Was he worth it? Based on his first year in Philly, no. Ristolainen was supposed to be a high-scoring defender who could be physical.

He was supposed to do that in Buffalo but hadn't done that. Was it because he was on a bad Sabres team? Maybe. But in his first season as a Flyer, he scored two goals with 14 assists and had set a career-high of 230 hits.

In season two, the Flyers changed head coaches. John Tortorella was hired. Torts is really into playing fundamentally sound hockey. Before he had issues with Tony DeAngelo and Kevin Hayes, it was Ristolainen that caught his attention. He was publicly called out for not hustling and playing hard.

From that time forward, a fire was lit underneath him. Ristolainen became, arguably the best defender on that Flyers' unit. In 74 games, he scored three goals with 17 assists.

He doled out 162 hits, a career-low to that point, but took 142 blocks and had 24 takeaways. Defensively, he became a better player. Based on his first season with Tortorella, there were high expectations for him for the 2023-24 season.

Those hopes and dreams were quickly dashed. A nagging undisclosed injury popped up during training camp. He sat out during most of the preseason.

Then he missed the start of the regular season. He didn't make his season debut until late November. He appeared in just 31 games before being shut down with a tricep injury. He scored one goal with three assists. Supposedly, he is on the mend and will be ready for the fall. We'll see.

So, this is where Ristolainen becomes one of the most important Flyers heading into next season. There are three ways this could play out:

Scenario I: He is Healthy and Returns to Form

The Flyers did miss out this year after trading Sean Walker. With a returning corps of Travis Sanheim, Cam York, Egor Zamula, Jamie Drysdale, and Nick Seeler, a healthy Ristolainen could slide right in.

Even with youngsters like Emil Andre, Adam Ginning, and Helge Grans waiting to come up and make their mark, a healthy Ristolainen would be welcomed.

If he could come out and become a physical, yet responsible defender who can contribute some offensive punch, he could be an effective second-pair guy.

That could help the Flyers get over the hump this season and they could focus any free-agent resources on finding an offensive player and/or re-signing Travis Konecny.

Scenario II: He is Healthy and Is Awful Again

This is the one that most Flyers fans fear will happen. He'll come back and he'll revert to what he was in his first season. Fundamentally he is off. Offensively, he can't contribute. Defensively, he is a liability.

If this is the case, then he could be in trouble. He'd probably be a healthy scratch a lot. If possible, the Flyers could try to move him at the trade deadline but his hefty salary will be an encumbrance. Maybe he would have to be a buyout candidate for next year.

Scenario III: He is Injury Prone

At its heart, this is similar to the second scenario. However, the reason he is bad is not because of his ability. His health is his ruin. He's lost a step. He's lost his strength. He's a shell of what he used to be. The injuries take a toll on him. He's afraid to get hurt and doesn't battle for the puck like before

In this scenario, he'll get outplayed and replaced in the lineup by someone like Andrae or Grans. He loses his spot in the lineup. And just like the second scenario, the team will try to move him, but his big salary might be hard. Either the team will have to eat it or cough him up for a low-level pick

Either way, Ristolainen is a huge key to the success of this upcoming season. If he can be healthy and strong, he can be an integral part of the Flyers moving forward.

If he can't be, the team will have to count on one of the younger prospects to take his roster spot and he could be playing on a rotational basis. His big contract hangs like an albatross on this team's neck. Worst comes to worst, that contract only has three years left on it.

Even then, a healthy, well-playing Ristolainen could fetch the team some draft picks or prospects at the trade deadline next year. A team might be willing to take the remaining two years of his contract if he is playing well.

Someone like Utah might welcome a player with potential star power to help develop a fan base. If he is back to form, and if a prospect is ready to go and contribute full-time, he could be dealt away and help the future of the team that way.

Knowing where he will fit into next year's plans will go a long way toward seeing how this team will rebuild. Hopefully, it will be a good plan, no matter what happens.