The Flyers defense is set after a blockbuster trade Friday afternoon.
They acquired physical defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen from Buffalo for defenseman Robert Hagg, the first-round draft selection Friday night, and their second-round pick in 2023.
Ristolainen, 26, a first-round selection (No. 8 overall) in 2013, is a 6-foot-4, 218-pound righthander who could play on the Flyers’ first or second pairing.
“He immediately adds grit to our team,” general manager Chuck Fletcher said, adding that Ristolainen was “a player we’ve been looking at over the last three years.”
Last week, the Flyers acquired Ryan Ellis, another veteran right-hander, from Nashville.
“I’m a player the other team hates to play against, and I try to be a pain in the ass,” Ristolainen said in a Zoom call with reporters. “... I can’t wait to get to Philly.”
Ristolainen said that he “knew something might happen this weekend” and that he was “very excited to go Philadelphia. I’m going to do everything I can to help the team make the playoffs and have a run there. All I care about is winning.”
The Flyers D may look like this: Ivan Provorov and Ellis; Travis Sanheim and Ristolainen; and rookie Cam York and Justin Braun. That gives them three righties and three lefties, and a veteran with a relatively young player on each pair.
“I think any time players are slotted in the right role and with the right players around them, they have a much better chance to improve and look better,” Fletcher said. “We’re obviously banking on that.”
The makeover was needed because the Flyers allowed the most goals in the NHL last season.
This trade is a bit risky because Ristolainen is entering the final year of a six-year contract that carries a 5.4 million cap hit. He had 18 points (4 goals, 14 assists) in 49 games last season. He missed seven games in February because of COVID-19.
- Source: CapFriendly
Because the trade happened about 90 minutes before he spoke with reporters, Ristolainen said he hadn’t had time yet to think about a potential contract extension with the Flyers, “but anything is possible.”
Fletcher said that he didn’t know about the timing of a possible extension, but that he viewed Ristolainen as someone “who should have a very good chance to be a part of our future.”
A native of Finland, Ristolainen led the Sabres in hits (191) and by averaging 22:17 of ice time per game last season. The Flyers plan to use him in all situations.
“His size, mobility, and physicality will make him an important piece to our group going forward,” Fletcher said.
In his eight-year career with Buffalo, playing on mostly bad teams, Ristolainen had a combined minus-163 rating and never had a “plus” season.
Ristolainen’s analytics numbers are poor, but Fletcher said “it’s in context of what he was asked to do.” The GM attributed some of it to playing with a rotating group of partners and having so many different coaches.
“We like the skill set he brings,” Fletcher said. “... He played a really big role in Buffalo at a young age on a developing hockey team. I believe he had five [actually, six] different head coaches in Buffalo, so AV [Alain Vigneault] will be his [seventh] head coach, and we’re hoping with stability and putting him with another experienced partner, he can fit in very nicely.”
The Flyers have $7.4 million in cap space, assuming Morgan Frost, Wade Allison, and York are on the team. They need to sign RFAs Carter Hart and Sanheim and add a backup goalie. Fletcher would also like to add a forward who can bolster the penalty kill.
An extremely durable player, Ristolainen appeared in all but 27 of Buffalo’s games over the last seven seasons.
The Flyers parted with Hagg, a steady, physical defender who had a $1.6 million cap hit. His best friend on the Flyers is fellow Swede Oskar Lindblom, and he helped the young left winger in his battle against a rare bone cancer.
Hagg, 26, was a second-round choice in the same 2013 draft that produced Ristolainen. An easy-going person with a dry sense of humor, Hagg was a popular player in the Flyers’ locker room.
Fletcher called him a “great human being” and a “heart and soul guy.”
As for trading their first pick, Fletcher said it was “extremely difficult” and noted that the scouts had worked tirelessly this year on drafting the right player(s).
The Flyers did not have a first-round pick for the first time since 2010. They will be selecting in the second day of the draft, Saturday, when Rounds 2-7 are held.
Fletcher said that because prospects weren’t seen as much in person this year as a result of the pandemic, he and his scouts are hopeful they can secure a stronger player than usual in Round 2.
With the 13th overall pick they acquired from the Flyers, Buffalo took elusive 5-foot-11, 161-pound right winger Isak Rosen on Friday night. ... Samuel Morin, an unrestricted free agent, could compete for the seventh defensive spot if signed. ... Between 2015-16 and 2018-19, Ristolainen had four straight seasons with more than 40 points. ... After going through annual rebuilding seasons in Buffalo, Ristolainen said he feels he would be “at my best when I play meaningful games. I see myself as a playoff-type player. I’m not that young anymore. I need to get some meaningful games.” ... Fletcher said he didn’t expect to make any more deals this weekend. ... With limited cap space, the Flyers did not pursue Buffalo center Jack Eichel, Fletcher said.