Every time 6-foot-4, 220-pound Flyers defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen lowers his shoulder to make a booming hit on an opponent, he channels the determination of his inner youth street hockey player, undersize and scrappy.
Make no mistake — that kid delivered some blows, too.
In his adolescence, Ristolainen competed against his much older, much larger neighbors on Karjalankatu, the street where he grew up in Turku, Finland, in games of street hockey. Tired of getting beat up by the bigger kids, Ristolainen aimed to shove their physical style of play back in their faces, literally, with hits of his own.
“I just loved it,” Ristolainen said. “It was physical, hitting; it’s reminding me, we hit more each other than we actually tried to score. I think it was kind of fun.”
Through two professional seasons with his hometown team, TPS Turku, and eight seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, Ristolainen kept that physical presence a focal point of his game. The 26-year-old ranks 18th among active NHL defensemen with 1,355 hits, according to QuantHockey.
On July 23, the Flyers traded defenseman Robert Hägg, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2023 second-round pick to bring Ristolainen to Philadelphia. The move was met with criticism, given Ristolainen is set to make $5.4 million and is entering the final year of his contract.
But, after finishing with a losing record in each of his years with the Sabres, Ristolainen looks forward to starting anew in Philadelphia.
“Eight years in Buffalo, it’s a long time,” Ristolainen said. “Things didn’t really work out. We couldn’t reach our goals, team-wise, personally. So I felt like I needed a change and turn a new page in my life. Needed some fresh energy and fresh environment.”
Stuck in the cellar
Ristolainen’s career started rather positively. He made his NHL debut at the beginning of the 2013-14 season at just 18, and won 2014 World Junior gold for Finland, scoring the gold-medal-winning goal in overtime against Sweden.
Then came the free-fall.
Over eight seasons with the Sabres, Ristolainen never made the playoffs, not even when the NHL introduced a 24-team playoff format in 2020 because of COVID-19. While Ristolainen had some productive moments offensively (from 2015 to 2019 he registered four-straight 40-point seasons), his struggles at the other end of the ice were well-documented. Among 319 active NHL defensemen, Ristolainen ranks dead last in career plus-minus with a minus-163 while ranking 11th in average time on ice.
Ristolainen played for six head coaches in Buffalo — Ron Rolston, Ted Nolan, Dan Bylsma, Phil Housley, Ralph Krueger, and Don Granato — and four general managers — Darcy Regier, Tim Murray, Jason Botterill, and Kevyn Adams. Although his experience in Buffalo lacked stability at the top and any degree of success, Ristolainen still found value in toiling at the bottom of the league standings.
“I kind of enjoy going through the hard way,” Ristolainen said. “Learn about winning, how hard it is. In this league, you don’t get anything free. You need to earn. Probably wish it didn’t last for that long, but I don’t really regret anything.”
One flash of optimism occurred during Ristolainen’s final season in Buffalo — his partnership with defenseman Jake McCabe. Through the first 10 games of the 2020-21 season, the duo allowed just 1.72 goals and 26.97 shots against per 60 minutes, according to Evolving-Hockey, which ranked them among the top pairings in the league.
Their aggressive, physical approaches to the game complemented each other well as the Sabres earned four wins in those first 10 games (the team went on to win just 11 of their remaining 46 games).
“Just knowing him, the style he plays, both been in Buffalo for a long time,” Ristolainen said. “He plays physical. He keeps the tempo. He can do everything on the ice. He can play offense, defense, and he talks out there a lot.”
From bad to worse
The honeymoon phase ended when Ristolainen contracted COVID-19 and was placed on the NHL’s COVID-related-absence list on Feb. 2. McCabe also tested positive for COVID-19 and was added to the list two days later.
During his three-week bout with COVID-19, Ristolainen told Finnish newspaper Ilta-Sanomat that he suffered a plethora of symptoms, from a drop in blood oxygen levels to chest pains that felt like his “heart was cracking” when he tried to walk up stairs.
“After, I was out of shape and I never got back into [the] shape I was,” Ristolainen said. “So that was probably the hardest thing during the year. You wanted to play so good. You wanted to do all the things you did before, but you were not in the shape you were before.”
To make matters worse, shortly after McCabe returned to the lineup, he suffered a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 23.
The pair tapped out at 10 games for the season and Ristolainen said he never felt like his normal self after his Feb. 27 return. Regardless, he led all Buffalo skaters that season in average ice time (22:17) and finished with 18 points (four goals, 14 assists) while rotating through five additional defensive partners.
When Ristolainen traveled home to Finland in early July, he still struggled to breathe properly during workouts. After about a month, he said he finally felt like he broke through and he ramped the training intensity up. On July 23, Ristolainen got a call from Adams to tell him that he had been traded to the Flyers.
“I think I forgot all [about] how I felt physically after that trade happened and I got so much mental energy from that,” Ristolainen said. “The excitement about going somewhere and starting the new page in your hockey career. So that, finally, at least I forgot everything else. I was just thinking about coming here and the team and everything and how good it felt.”
Foes become friends
In Philadelphia, Ristolainen joins new teammates and old foes. While playing against the Flyers, Ristolainen accumulated enemies on the ice in Sean Couturier and James van Riemsdyk, whom he also came to despise while van Riemsdyk played for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
At the top of Ristolainen’s list of most-loathed Flyers, however, was Travis Konecny.
“I hated TK a lot,” Ristolainen said. “I hate to play against smaller guys. They’re so slippery and fast and it’s kind of hard to hit them. He was kind of always slashing me.”
When Ristolainen met his new teammates for the first time as a Flyer, there were no body checks involved. Instead, Ristolainen greeted each of them with a smile.
“It’s kind of funny how it turned out,” Ristolainen said. “But obviously, what happens on the ice doesn’t affect the off-ice stuff. Everyone who goes out there, you just want to win and do anything [that] it takes.”
On the path to success this season, Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher envisions Ristolainen as more of a second-pairing defenseman. Throughout the preseason, Ristolainen has been partnered with Travis Sanheim, who excels in transition and in attacking the offensive zone. Ristolainen likened Sanheim to McCabe in terms of his ability to play every aspect of the game well.
Through three preseason games, Ristolainen and Sanheim finished a plus-two. Head coach Alain Vigneault said he has “really liked the chemistry” that has developed between the defensemen, and Sanheim appreciates his partnership with Ristolainen so far.
“Before camp, we’re in the gym and he’s lifting considerably more amount of weight than everyone else,” Sanheim said. “Just watching him and what he does, it’s pretty incredible. You can see on the ice as well, he uses his strength to his advantage. It’s a big advantage. It’s good to be able to be a partner with him.”
As Ristolainen enters the final year of his six-year deal , he said he doesn’t feel any added pressure to perform well.
Instead, he’s just focused on executing the responsibilities that the coaching staff set out for him — bring energy, be physical, and make plays, the same tasks he set out to accomplish during his Karjalankatu street hockey days.
“The only pressure is my mind,” Ristolainen said. “I expect a lot from myself and I know I have a lot of room to improve. I don’t care if it’s a contract year or first year in my contract. I want to improve and play my best hockey this year.”