Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher is a Harvard graduate. Surely he knows about the sunk-cost fallacy?
Let’s turn to the Harvard Business Review for a brief explainer. In short, the sunk-cost effect occurs “when someone chooses to do or continue something just because they have invested (unrecoverable) resources in it in the past.”
It’s a widespread occurrence. It can lead to poor decision-making, whether you’re the CEO of a multinational company or unhappy in a romantic relationship. Or, the general manager of a hockey team that has taken an unexpected turn into a deep ditch this season.
Transforming the Blue Line
The Flyers finished last in the NHL in goals against in the Covid-shortened 2020-21 season. Fletcher made a re-tool of his defense his top offseason priority. And he acted decisively.
On July 22, he shipped out Shayne Gostisbehere and two draft picks, a second-rounder and a seventh-rounder in 2022, in exchange for future considerations. In essence, he paid the Arizona Coyotes two draft picks to take on the last two seasons of Gostisbehere’s $4.5 million cap hit.
Then, on July 23, he acquired Ristolainen from Buffalo. The cost: defenseman Robert Hagg, a 2021 first-round pick, and a second-round pick in 2023.
On July 28, Fletcher signed veteran defenseman Keith Yandle to a bargain one-year free-agent contract. That deal came after Yandle was bought out by the Florida Panthers.
Along with Ristolainen and Yandle, the other primary members of the Flyers’ top six this season have been Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Nick Seeler. That’s two Philadelphia first-round draft picks and Seeler, the 28-year-old who played under Fletcher with the Minnesota Wild. Playing on a league-minimum contract, Seeler is up to 35 games this season.
Ellis has played just four games and may not be seen again this year. Prospect Cam York and journeyman Kevin Connauton have 13 games each.
Where They Stand Now
Following Tuesday’s 3-0 shutout loss to the Edmonton Oilers, the Flyers are sitting 25th in the league defensively, averaging 3.40 goals against per game. They’re 27th on the penalty kill, with a success rate of 76.3%.
Not great numbers by any stretch of the imagination. But there actually is a small measure of improvement from 2020-21. Last year, they were at 3.52 goals against per game and a penalty kill at 73.1%.
But the defense has actually gotten a bit worse since Alain Vigneault was let go on Dec. 6. In their 35 games under interim head coach Mike Yeo, the Flyers are at 3.55 goals against per game, and a penalty kill rate of just 71.3%.
Would the defense have been better if Ryan Ellis had been able to play most of the season? Almost definitely. Ellis was a solid presence for years on a good defensive team in Nashville. During his limited minutes in Philly, he was effective at both ends of the ice.
If Ellis had been logging his usual 20-plus minutes a night, that would have also relieved matchup pressure for Ristolainen and Braun on the right side. Everyone would have slotted into more appropriate roles.
Ristolainen has been a whipping boy for the analytics community for years. When chatter popped up on Twitter on Tuesday that Fletcher is looking to sign the big Finn to a contract extension, those incriminating heat maps popped up yet again.
The rumours about the Flyers wanting to re-sign Risto don't make any sense to me. Maybe you don't care for models that try to isolate individual player's impacts. But just looking at the team's results, how do you look at what they've done with him and say "more please". pic.twitter.com/yJ47azv9wW
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) March 2, 2022
In Ristolainen’s defense, he’s in a different role this season than he would have been if Ellis had been healthy. At 21:10 per game, the 27-year-old’s ice time is down from his peak years in Buffalo. But that’s mostly because he has barely been used on the power play with the Flyers. He is still logging significant minutes at even strength and on the penalty kill. And those minutes are tough, on a team that plays from behind as often as Philadelphia.
Risto does deliver snarl that you won’t find elsewhere in the Flyers’ lineup. His 165 hits are nearly 100 clear of second-place Justin Braun, who is at 68.
Navigating The Deadline
When you’ve got a 6’4″ former first-round draft pick who’s about to hit unrestricted free agency at age 27, you’ve also got an agent shouting from the rooftops about how his client is a top-tier NHL player. Presumably, that’s the case with Ristolainen’s representative Andrew Scott of Octagon, who is also currently navigating choppy waters with clients Patrik Laine and Jakob Chychrun.
It’s being reported that Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet says, “the Flyers feel if they move (Ristolainen), they’ll be low on NHL calibre defencemen.” Yandle, Braun, Seeler and Connauton are all approaching unrestricted free agency
Friedman’s a reliable source. But consider where he might have gotten that information. It could come from Fletcher, who might be sincere about wanting to re-up the blueliner or could be trying to pump up Ristolainen’s trade value.
It could also have come from the agent. Scott will want to keep his client in a spot where he’s happy, while also maximizing the value of that next contract.
By all appearances, Ristolainen seems to like Philadelphia.
Rasmus Ristolainen asking Claude Giroux to feed him passes for one-timers. You can see in practice every day, Ristolainen does like it here. pic.twitter.com/Jl56pR1jnm
— Jordan Hall (@JHallNBCS) February 25, 2022
After all those years in Buffalo, the losing might not faze him much, either. Still, there’s a curiosity to see how Risto would perform in his first-ever playoff setting.
The Road Ahead
Analytics aside, Ristolainen could be a solid core asset to build around as the Flyers move into their next incarnation. But if you believe in the sunk-cost fallacy, you’re probably hoping that Fletcher will cut his losses and deal his defenseman ahead of the trade deadline. He’d be able to recoup some assets against the price he paid, and get Philadelphia one step closer to a full reset on the blue line next year.
The clock is now ticking. If Ristolainen isn’t moved and doesn’t ink a contract extension before the March 21st trade deadline, he could walk to a new team as an unrestricted free agent on July 13. The Flyers and their fans would have nothing but one more missing draft pick — a second-rounder in 2023 — to remember him by.
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