With the 2023-24 NHL Regular season bearing down on us. The Flyers will open the season against the Columbus Blue Jackets on October 12th in Columbus. We here at EOP will spotlight a Flyers player every week. First up Defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen. At this point last year, Philadelphia Flyers defender Rasmus Ristolainen was probably the poster boy of the lack of direction and identity of the team by the Flyers fandom. It was easy to see why.
How It Began
To acquire him, the Flyers had to give up young defender Robert Hagg, a first-round pick, and a second-round pick. He then immediately signed a contract that would pay him $5.1 million for the next five seasons. It was decried as too much for a player who had yet to earn it. By taking on his salary, the Flyers also had to move fan favorite Shayne Gostisbehere for nothing to Arizona. One of many questionable moves by former Flyers GM/ President of Hockey Operations Chuck Fletcher.
More importantly, when he hit the ice in his first season, he did nothing to show he earned it. While his production had slowed down during the COVID season, he had topped the 40-point plateau for four years running. He was also a defensive liability, putting up a +/- rating of -15 or worse in six of his eight seasons in Buffalo. The 2021-22 season was a bad one for the Flyers and Ristolainen didn’t make it easier and he drew much of the fan ire. Ristolainen scored just two goals with 14 assists all season. Meanwhile, Ghost had a nice bounce-back year with 14 goals and 37 assists in Arizona, and then Carolina.
The comparisons couldn’t be helped but be noticed by the Flyers fans. The start of the 2022-23 season wasn’t much better for Ristolainen. He didn’t register a point until Dec. 23, with an assist against the Carolina Hurricanes. That’s 28 games deep into the season. He was also called out publicly by new head coach John Tortorella because he wasn’t meeting his coach’s expectations. He was also benched by the coach.
At that point of the season, Travis Konecny and Kevin Hayes had both been sat for a period and Tony DeAngelo was still in Tortorella’s graces. The focus was on Ristolainen, but the thing is, he responded. That press conference was on November 7, 2022. Following that, slowly but steadily, Ristolainen began to improve his play. Despite his slow start, he finished the year with three goals and 17 assists: more points than the year before. The hits he doled out dropped from 230 to 162, but he increased his blocked shots from 125 to 142 and doubled his takeaways from 12 to 24. In short, he learned to play defense smarter. By the end of the season, his plus-minus rating was a respectable -4, better than the -9 the year before. Only Nick Seeler’s +1 and Justin Braun’s -1 were better than him for any defender who played more than 50 games.
Rest Of The Story
Ristolainen may never become the power play quarterback we were told he’d be. He’s probably not the second coming of Ghost. It seems that the soon-to-be 29-year-old is learning how to be a better version of himself. That could be of immense value to a team that is throwing young defenders into the fire. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Ristolainen may have been the Flyer’s best overall defender last year. It’s interesting because, with the many young talented blueliners in Leigh, some may wonder why he was still on the team.
He seems to have taken the advice of his coaches, made his mistakes, learned from them, and improved. If only Hayes and DeAngelo could’ve done the same. Looking into the upcoming season, Ristolainen has a chance to be one of the major cogs on the defense. He can help guide some of the younger kids on the blueline on how to navigate their new coach and why you can benefit from listening to him if he chews you out. He’s also a great reminder of second chances and why you shouldn’t give up on a guy just yet.
Year three should provide more clarity on whether Risto is a building block of the future or another tradeable asset to aid in the rebuild.
Matt Bednarczyk is your host of Talking Philly Sports With Matty B. He is a proud retired US Army Sergeant First Class, he is also a combat veteran with over 80 months served in Afganistan, and Iraq . Huge Hockey Fan. Matt is a lifelong 4 for 4 Philly sports fan. Born and raised on the Mayfair and Tacony neighborhood lines of Northeast Philly. He brings over 40 years of Philadelphia Sports passion and provides a realistic look at our Major Sports Teams and the most passionate sports fans on the planet. Look for his show live on Edge of Philly Sports.