Physical, polarizing Finnish defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen is off to Philadelphia for a massive return, including the 13th pick in this year’s draft. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Flyers Acquire Rasmus Ristolainen From Buffalo For Hägg, First, Second

After trading Shayne Gostisbehere to the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday, general manager Chuck Fletcher outlined that his priority moving forward was the acquisition of a top-four right-handed defenseman. On Friday afternoon, just hours before the 2021 NHL Draft, Fletcher set out to do just that. Instead, he acquired Rasmus Ristolainen, a top-four defenseman in name only.

Oof.
Oof squared.

Surely the return was not all that mu- he cost a first, a second, and Robert Hägg?

OOF.

Sure, the advanced stats look rough, but the eye test provides hope, right?

Oh boy.

Ristolainen was drafted eighth overall by the Sabres in 2013, becoming a regular in their lineup before the end of his draft-plus-one season. Contrary to popular belief (and the above charts), there are some appealing things about Ristolainen. He is big (6’4”, 221 lbs), willing to throw the body, and he brings toughness and physicality to the Flyers’ back-end. He is right-handed and he can put up points: 2020-21 marked the first time since 2014-15 – his first full NHL season – that Ristolainen failed to score at a 39-point pace. From 2015-19, he tallied 95 power-play points, 13th in the NHL during that time span.

None of that makes up for the fact that Ristolainen is an atrocious player at 5v5. Since the 2014-15 season, 635 skaters have played at least 1000 minutes. Ristolainen ranks 626th in Corsi For% (41.54%), 613th in Expected Goals For% (42.71%), 587th in 5v5 goals-for percentage (587th). He is -2% to -3% relative to his teammates per 60 minutes in each of those aforementioned stats. In other words, the Sabres have been quite a bit better with Ristolainen on the bench than the ice at 5v5 for basically his entire career.

This is not a case of a bad season or two bogging down otherwise decent numbers. Ristolainen’s Corsi and Expected Goals for both peaked in 2018-19 in the 47% range. By both metrics, he has been negative relative to his teammates (per 60) every year except 2017-18. Buffalo has never outscored their opposition with Ristolainen on the ice over a full season. Even if you are not an analytics person, he “won” hockey’s green jacket for worst plus/minus in 2018-19 at -41. Other than points, very few statistics point to Ristolainen as an effective hockey player.

Is there reason to think he could improve in Philadelphia? Maybe. The Sabres have long used Ristolainen in a top-pair role, which does explain some of his struggles; Ristolainen was clearly outmatched in such a difficult role. He will likely slot in on Philadelphia’s second pair next to Travis Sanheim, a still demanding but slightly easier role. He should also compete for power-play time, although PP1 duty will not be handed to him like it was in Buffalo; Ristolainen will battle with Ryan Ellis, Ivan Provorov, Cam York, and maybe Sanheim for power-play time. And as Chuck Fletcher pointed out, Ristolainen had five coaches in his eight years in Buffalo, so some stability with Alain Vigneault could be just what the doctor ordered for Ristolainen’s future.

It is worth noting that Ristolainen’s 2020-21 season actually started pretty well; he found success on a pair with Jake McCabe, sporting a 53.31% Corsi, 55.21% xGF and a 8-5 on-ice 5v5 goal differential through Buffalo’s first 10 games. Then McCabe suffered a season-ending injury on February 20 and Ristolainen’s underlying numbers fell off a cliff. They might have dipped even if McCabe stayed healthy, but the Flyers at least have proof that Ristolainen is capable of being a good defenseman.

Yes, other players like Ryan O’Reilly and Taylor Hall have flourished once leaving the Buffalo anchor behind, but they had a few advantages over Ristolainen: both were playing well before joining the Sabres and both were better on the Sabres than Ristolainen. Could he turn the corner in Orange and Black? It is possible, but it is also a massive gamble considering Ristolainen’s cap hit ($5.4 million), the cost to get him (a first, second, and Hägg, plus essentially Gostisbehere, a second, and a seventh, which had to be moved out to clear the cap space for this move), and the plethora of better and cheaper options available.

For example, a player like David Savard, Niklas Hjalmarsson, or Zach Bogosian would have been better than Ristolainen and cost less against the cap. The Flyers could have even filled the physicality void that Ristolainen helps cover, too. Even standing pat and going into 2021-22 with Provorov, Ellis, Sanheim, Braun, Hägg, and York on defense would have arguably been better than making this move, as it ties Chuck Fletcher’s hands a decent bit from a cap and available assets standpoint. Speaking of Fletcher, this acquisition is pretty out of character for him. Almost every notable player he has acquired as Flyers GM has been at least passable by public underlying numbers. An even bigger surprise is that Fletcher has gone on record saying he would not trade significant assets (like pick #13) for a rental, but Ristolainen has one year left on his contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent.

Doubling down and extending Ristolainen right now, which would probably be lengthy and represent a raise from his current cap hit, is the only thing that could make this trade worse (Ristolainen is not officially eligible for one yet, but will be soon). If Ristolainen turns things around in Philadelphia, then you can talk, but that is an optimistic outlook. Gambling on that right now would be even more ill-advised than the trade itself (Fletcher did say in his post-trade presser that the team is not currently looking at extending Ristolainen, which Ristolainen confirmed while speaking to the Philadelphia media).

This trade does fit Fletcher’s mantra of getting ahead of the crowd and being the first to make his big moves; the Kevin Hayes trade/signing and the trades for Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun in 2019 were all completed before free agency opened. But this trade is mostly a hard left from what Fletcher’s been saying for most of the offseason.

This trade also leaves the Flyers with about $8.4 million in cap space (once factoring in calling up someone like York and signing a cheap seventh defenseman, potentially Samuel Morin) to sign RFAs Travis Sanheim and Carter Hart. The Flyers could also use an established third-line center and a goal-scoring winger, and they need a quality backup goaltender. It seems like the Flyers will have to make another salary dump move similar to the Gostisbehere trade, and considering the two most likely players to be dealt in such a move (James van Riemsdyk and Jakub Voracek) are significantly older and higher paid than Gostisbehere, the price to move one of them seems to be massive. Not to mention the Flyers just lost two assets, this year’s first and their 2023 second, they could have used as sweeteners in one of those deals.

In Hägg, the Sabres are acquiring a sixth or seventh defenseman with poor underlying numbers in each of his first three seasons. It is worth noting that while Hägg’s underlying numbers were actually very good down the stretch in 2020-21, he has been in and out of the lineup in each of his four seasons as a Flyer. The 2013 second-round pick is a good penalty killer who skates well, block shots, and throws the body, but he is a poor puck-mover, limiting his upside to decent third-pairing defenseman.

Hägg was a polarizing player in Philadelphia but always appeared to be a beloved teammate. He is best friends with fellow Swede Oskar Lindblom and was a huge part of Lindblom’s support during his battle with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer Lindblom was diagnosed with in December 2019. Perhaps Buffalo can unlock the 24-year old’s potential on the ice, but he will be missed in the Flyers dressing room regardless. He is an RFA with arbitration rights at season’s end making $1.6 million.

The real crown for the Sabres is their acquisition of two draft picks. This is a tremendous return for Buffalo for a flawed player one year away from departing in free agency. If they hit on pick 13 and Owen Power becomes the player many think he will be, today could go down as a historically great day for the Buffalo Sabres. After Kevyn Adam’s two biggest moves last offseason (trading for Eric Staal and signing Taylor Hall) blew up in his face, this summer in Buffalo is off to a very promising start.

Philadelphia’s offseason was on that track not too long ago. The Ryan Ellis trade was a home run and gives Philadelphia their best defenseman since prime Kimmo Timonen. Losing Gostisbehere hurt from an emotional and nostalgic standpoint, but most fans could see it was a necessary move. Right now, the Ristolainen trade looks like a massive risk considering how many other baskets Chuck Fletcher could have put such a significant number of eggs in. It is easily the most confounding move of the Flyers offseason to this point.

Like reading about players the Flyers have lost? We’ve got you covered.

There is a chance that Ristolainen’s raw physical attributes, his departure from a dysfunctional Buffalo organization, and potentially being underrated by public models come together in the perfect way for him to thrive in Philadelphia, but his arrival may have created a hazard on Flyers’ offseason road that hitherto had been straight, flat, and directed toward success. Ristolainen could become a speed bump or a green light on that road, but all the numbers say he is more likely to be the former.

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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5, Score and Venue Adjusted, unless otherwise stated and via Natural Stat Trick