Flyers defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen is now healthy after missing the first 20 games of the season with a lower-body injury. The Maple Leafs have shown interest in the 29-year-old in their efforts to add to their blueline, reports Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet.
The 2013 eighth-overall pick has never been a beacon of defensive acumen throughout his 687 games with the Sabres and Flyers. However, his advanced defensive metrics saw major improvement last season, bringing his on-ice value closer to what you’d expect from a player carrying a $5.1MM cap hit.
After sitting in the bottom tenth percentile of overall even-strength defensive impact during the end of his time in Buffalo and his first season with the Flyers after a 2021 trade, Ristolainen’s defensive play rocketed up to the 87th percentile of all NHL defenders, per wins against replacement data from public analyst Patrick Bacon. His pairing with Nick Seeler last season put up remarkable defensive numbers, allowing less than two expected goals against per 60 minutes on an otherwise defensively weak Flyers team, per MoneyPuck.
In a small sample this season, the trend looks to continue. His partner since returning from injury has been veteran Marc Staal, and the two have controlled a staggering 70.3% of expected goals together – the third-best of any defense pairing this season with at least 30 minutes played together.
That being said, this increase in defensive impact has also come with a significant decrease in usage. In 2021-22, his first season in Philadelphia, Ristolainen logged nearly 19 minutes per game at even strength. Last season, when his possession quality numbers spiked, that number dropped to nearly 16 minutes per game. This year, he’s averaging just 14:30 per game at even strength through five games.
Needless to say, it’s apparent Ristolainen’s sudden increase in value is a little bit of smoke and mirrors. He’s putting up these numbers against much easier competition than the minutes he shouldered early on in his career. His analytics suggest he can be a high-end third-pair defenseman but not much more. Given he’s played a similarly reduced role this season and has just one assist since returning from injury, it doesn’t make a ton of sense for a cap-strapped team such as Toronto to take on his inflated cap hit, which runs through 2027.
Considering the Flyers aren’t in a position to offload assets for less than market value, a trade makes even less sense for the Maple Leafs, given the significant return they’d have to put on the table. As Friedman notes, the Flyers are playing decent hockey, sitting ninth in the Eastern Conference with a .560 points percentage and remaining in the playoff race as the holiday season rolls around. That’s much better than anyone expected, and as such, Friedman doesn’t believe the Flyers are actively shopping Ristolainen.
While having T.J. Brodie, Timothy Liljegren, and Ristolainen would be a strong complement of right-side defenders, the Maple Leafs simply don’t have the financial flexibility to make a Ristolainen deal worth it for the limited role he would play – or, at least, the limited role he should play to be effective. Limiting chances against during 5-on-5 play is an area of need for Toronto (they’re below the league average in that area), but there are better targets to pursue that can shoulder more minutes with more success.
Take Calgary Flames pending UFA Chris Tanev, for example, as a better bet to improve the team’s defensive play while shouldering over 20 minutes per game. They’ve demonstrated interest in him as well, and he’s higher on their wish list by all accounts. As Friedman also mentions, the Maple Leafs would make a Tanev deal with the confidence that they can extend him given his hometown roots and his connection with ex-Flames and current Maple Leafs GM Brad Treliving.