For Rasmus Ristolainen, his first season in Philadelphia was a rollercoaster. Even before stepping onto the ice at the Wells Fargo Center, skepticism was high regarding the defenseman.
Ristolainen was an eighth overall selection by the Buffalo Sabres during the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. He was a coveted, exciting prospect for the Sabres at the time. Nicknamed “The Finnish Pronger” before the draft, Ristolainen appeared to be the complete package on defense. Skating, puck control, physicality, size, offensive abilities, and more; Ristolainen had it all.
He was the third defenseman selected in the top ten during the draft. Seth Jones (fourth overall) and Darnell Nurse (seventh overall) were taken before Ristolainen.
In the NHL, Ristolainen is far removed from his comparison to Chris Pronger.
Transition to the NHL
Ristolainen immediately saw top pair minutes when he stepped foot in Buffalo. He averaged 23:53 during his first eight seasons. His criticism stems from bad defensive positioning, leading to overall poor performance. The Sabres’ roster, generally, has been near the bottom of the league for almost a decade. They didn’t improve with Ristolainen.
Buffalo has had a losing record since 2013-2014 and the last time they made the playoffs was in 2010-2011 when they were eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers. The best season that Ristolainen experienced in Buffalo was in 2015-2016 when the Sabres went 35-36-11 for a total of 81pts, good for seventh in the Atlantic Division. Ristolainen scored 41 points (9G, 32A) in 82 games.
He has four consecutive 40+ point seasons between 2015-2019. Unfortunately, he routinely sacrificed defense to accumulate those point totals, straying from the thesis of his position. Ristolainen never finished with a positive rating. The brunt of criticism was during the 2018-2019 season when he was a -41, the worst in the entire NHL.
Ristolainen was the highest-scoring defenseman in Buffalo between 2015-2018. When Rasmus Dahlin was selected first overall during the 2018 draft, he immediately outplayed Ristolainen. Before Dahlin, Ristolainen was at the top with Marco Scandella.
The trade to the Flyers
Before the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, Ristolainen was a topic in trade discussions. The Sabres owned the first-overall selection and were looking to add another first-round pick.
Buffalo wanted a first-round pick for the defenseman. Seven teams were willing to pay the price. Chuck Fletcher presented Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams with the sweetest offer, one that was hard to turn down. Adams accepted and Ristolainen packed his bags for Broad Street.
The package for Ristolainen included a 2021 first-round pick, a 2023 second-round pick, and Robert Hagg. It was a steep price to pay for a defenseman who has seen little success at the NHL level, but Fletcher believed Ristolainen would strengthen the second pair with Travis Sanheim.
A new chapter in Philadelphia
Ristolainen played in 66 games during his first season in Philadelphia. He scored 16 points (2G, 14A) and was a -9. He averaged 21:26 of ice time. The Flyers’ defense during ’21-’22 was an overall disaster, but the second pair of Ristolainen-Sanheim was the better and most consistent one throughout the year.
Ristolainen had his second worst season points-wise in ’21-’22, but he did show positive signs. His physicality was present in each game, which his teammates appreciated. His aggressive playing style benefited Sanheim, which saw him be the top Flyers defenseman during the year.
However, Ristolainen’s defensive flaws from Buffalo came with him to Philadelphia. Poor awareness, positioning, and costly mistakes appeared more than once.
Extended through 2026-2027
Despite the glaring flaws that Ristolainen showed in ’21-’22, Fletcher thought his first season in Philadelphia was positive and signed him to a five-year, $25.5M deal. The deal is controversial and can play a part in why the Flyers were cap stricken during free agency.
Ristolainen turns 28 in October. At this point in his career and how he’s played, his time on a first pair seems to be over. He could revive his career under John Tortorella and Brad Shaw, improving as a top-four defenseman on the Flyers.
(Photo by Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire)