Chuck Fletcher paid a trade-deadline price for a draft-day deal.
On Friday, the Philadelphia Flyers general manager executed on his third deal in less than a week. He acquired Rasmus Ristolainen from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for defenseman Robert Hagg and two draft picks — the Flyers’ first-rounder in Friday’s draft (13th overall) and their second-rounder in 2023.
It’s all part of a blue-line overhaul for the NHL’s worst defensive team in 2020-21. The deal comes six days after Fletcher picked up Ryan Ellis from the Nashville Predators. On Thursday, Fletcher shipped Shayne Gostisbehere and two draft picks to the Arizona Coyotes, freeing up a roster spot and salary-cap space.
Short Term Only?
Like Ellis, Ristolainen, 26, plays the right side. He carries a cap hit of $5.4 million to go along with Ellis’ $6.25 million. But unlike Ellis, Ristolainen is not signed long-term. He has just one year remaining before reaching unrestricted free agency.
During the summer, it’s unusual to see a general manager give up a first-round pick, not to mention additional assets, for one year of players control — unless there’s a framework in place for a contract extension.
It was rumored that the Flyers soured on trading for Seth Jones when he was unwilling to commit long term. On Friday, Elliotte Friedman reported that Jones does have a seven-year extension in place now that he has been acquired by the Chicago Blackhawks, at a $9.5 million cap hit. Jones will be eligible to sign that on July 28, when he’s officially one year away from unrestricted free agency.
Fletcher is rolling the dice with Ristolainen.
“The cap is tough right now,” he said. “I mean, it’s a flat-cap world. I don’t know what the timing would be, but certainly we look at Ristolainen as being a guy that should have a very good chance of being part of our future going forward.
“That’s something we’ll look at in due course, and depending on the cap and where we’re at, look to do things when the timing’s right.”
A High Price In The Offseason
Contending teams are known to ship out first-rounders at the trade deadline for players on expiring contracts. The hope is that they’ll help in the playoffs. Fletcher seems to have paid a heavy price to offer Ristolainen a full-season audition in Philadelphia.
While Ellis is known to play a feisty game for a somewhat undersized defenseman, physicality is central for 6’4″, 218-pound Ristolainen, who regularly tops 200 hits and 100 blocked shots in a season.
“I’m a player that the other team hates to play against,” Ristolainen said Friday, when asked to describe his playing style. “I try to be a pain in the ass.
“I can do everything. Play penalty kill, power play. I can pass the puck, I can shoot the puck, I can play any type of role. Hard worker, like to hit, just do anything that it takes to win.”
With that versatility, Ristolainen has been called upon to play big minutes in Buffalo. He has averaged 23:53 of ice time per game since coming into the league. In 542 career NHL games, the big Finn has 46 goals and 199 assists for 245 points. He has cracked the 40-point plateau four times.
Meaningful Games For The First Time
Of course, there hasn’t been much winning in Buffalo since Ristolainen was selected by the Sabres with the eighth-overall pick in 2013. The Sabres are now in a league-high drought of 10 years without a playoff appearance. Ristolainen’s only postseason experience in North America has been a five-game stint with the AHL Rochester Americans in his rookie year.
“I think I’m at my best when I play meaningful games. I see myself as playoff type of player,” he said. “Not that young anymore, but still young. I need to get some meaningful games and try to make the playoffs.
“I think Philly, they’re very close and right there to battle for those playoff spots.”
For Fletcher and coach Alain Vigneault, the pressure is on to get the Flyers back into postseason contention. No one wants to think about this now, but if Ristolainen isn’t extended and the playoff push falls short, Fletcher could recoup some of the price he paid today by moving the big blueliner on to a contender at the 2021 trade deadline.
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More Work To Be Done
After Ristolainen’s addition, the Flyers have about $10 million in cap space available, with 17 players on their main roster, according to CapFriendly. Two restricted free agents must still be signed: goaltender Carter Hart and left-side defenseman Travis Sanheim, who’s likely to be paired with Ristolainen.
On Friday, Fletcher suggested that he’s done for now, but more moves lie on the horizon.
“We’re still going to look,” he said. “Adding another goalie will be paramount and we’ll look to see if we can add a little bit more depth. Still want to look at potentially adding some players that can help with the penalty kill up front. Those are the types of discussions we’re having now.
“I don’t think we’ll be doing anything the rest of this weekend with respect to trades.”
With the 13th pick now the property of Buffalo, the Flyers almost certainly won’t factor into Day 1 of Friday’s 2021 Entry Draft. They hold six picks for Day 2 on Saturday — one in each round from two through seven.