The Philadelphia Flyers made the decision to extend Right shot Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. He was signed to a 25.5 million deal over the next 5 years (5.1 million per year).
Here are Ristolainen’s underlying numbers and contract details courtesy of Jfresh Hockey.
Ristolainen was acquired by GM Chuck Fletcher this off-season from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Robert Hägg, a first round pick in 2021, and a 2023 second round pick. He has not provided what Fletcher hoped he would. His underlying numbers are abysmal, and he has contributed nothing offensively or defensively. His performance on the ice makes him a third pairing guy at the very most, but he has consistently played on the first pairing. The Flyers have a weak defense and minimal talent. In fact, the Ristolainen and Travis Sanheim pairing has been the best pairing at 5-v-5 this season. But with the Flyers’ defense being as bad as it is, that isn’t saying much at all. They have been outplayed, outshot, and outscored all season. The stats also show that the Sanheim-Ristolainen pairing’s status as best on the Flyers is not thanks to Ristolainen. Sanheim is the one anchoring the pairing. Sanheim has been shown to play well with and elevate whatever other defenseman is on his pairing. Many models have him in the 92nd percentile of defensemen, while Ristolainen is in the 19th percentile of defensemen under those same models.
Even though all the numbers suggest that Ristolainen is a poor defenseman, Fletcher chose to extend his contract. Why did Fletcher make this decision? The only thing that Ristolainen has going for him is his size and physicality. He is 6’4 and 221lbs. There is nothing NHL GMs love more than big defensemen who throw hits but can’t play defense or score. Ristolainen seems to be in the same vein. He is top 10 in hits thrown by defensemen, with 177 hits this season. Historically, the Flyers have been known as a scrappy, hard-hitting, and tough team. They were known as the Broad Street Bullies in their heyday, and they won two cups during that period. It is rumored that Fletcher wants to return to that identity and gain gritty players to build a roster. Whether that identity can work now in an era where the NHL is trying to promote high skill remains to be seen. To win the cup these days, you need a combination of grade A goaltending, a highly talented offense, a solid defense, and grinders who will throw big hits. Tampa Bay was an excellent example of that. Having a bunch of grinders who don’t know how to play defense besides throwing hits and who can’t generate offense doesn’t seem like the best strategy, but who knows, maybe Fletcher has unlocked the Stanley Cup secret, and we just don’t know it yet. That seems doubtful.
This signing is just one of many bad decisions by Fletcher. From his decision to rush goalie Carter Hart up to the NHL, leading Hart’s struggles last season, and to his absolute failure when it comes to building any kind of blueline, he has never shown himself to be a competent GM. The Minnesota Wild, Fletcher’s former team, has become a true contender after Fletcher’s departure. He also signed both Sutter and Parise to giant contracts in terms of length and money that had to be bought out by the team this year. His draft record is commendable, but the Flyers have a poor record of developing prospects, even if Fletcher can draft well. Fletcher now dares to say that the team doesn’t need to rebuild, just a retool. Considering how bad the Flyers are at developing talent and their current state, that is a fatal underestimation of what this team needs. The same could be said for signing Ristolainen.
Now that Ristolainen is locked up, there are rumors that Sanheim could be on the trade block. Sanheim is the Flyers’ best defenseman by the stats, and with Cam York not looking ready to make his NHL debut, trading Sanheim would be further crippling this already shambolic defense. Fletcher can’t make this team work, despite a coaching change and trading out prominent scapegoat players Nolan Patrick, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Jakub Voracek at a loss. Besides Patrick, who has been struggling with injuries this year, each of those players have been playing better with their new teams. Fletcher doesn’t have a good record with trades, so he would likely not make the right decision when getting rid of one of his only skilled defensemen.
The Ristolainen signing does not look great. He is, at best, the 4th defenseman in your top four and probably should be a third-pairing guy on any good team. He is overpaid for what he is and is yet another decision in the long list of Fletcher failures. You shouldn’t be paying your third pairing defensemen 5.1 million dollars under any circumstances beside a defenseman declining on an existing long contract. Whether the Flyers ever find success under Fletcher remains to be seen, but this Ristolainen signing does not bode well for the franchise’s future.