Chuck Fletcher mentioned the Flyers' need for more top-end talent and how the entry draft is the best way to land it.
The general manager traded away the Flyers' best opportunity in the 2021 draft when he dealt for Rasmus Ristolainen during July. To acquire the bruising Finnish defenseman, the Flyers sent the Sabres the 13th overall pick (technically 14th) in the 2021 draft, Robert Hagg and a 2023 second-round selection.
"Well, when we traded for him — look, clearly I paid a big price, I recognize that," Fletcher said a little less than two weeks ago at his midseason press conference. "It's difficult to get physical defensemen, never mind physical, right-shot defensemen. There were other teams that were offering similar type of packages to ours and we had the highest pick, so we got him. And I recognize we paid a big price."
It was arguably Fletcher's biggest gamble of his aggressive and active offseason in which he brought in seven new faces. But the Flyers' 2021-22 season has not gone anywhere close to planned. The club entered the All-Star break in seventh place of the Metropolitan Division at 15-22-8 and with a minus-39 goal differential. It fired head coach Alain Vigneault in early December and has been beset by a number of injuries to crucial pieces.
For the most part, Ristolainen has stayed on the ice, playing in 41 of the Flyers' 45 games. What made Fletcher's trade for Ristolainen particularly risky was the defenseman's expiring contract. The GM said last summer if he were to trade the club's 2021 first-round pick, "you better be getting a really good player that can help you for a few years."
Playing out the final year of a six-year, $32.4 million contract ($5.4 million cap hit), Ristolainen can hit unrestricted free agency in the offseason.
"I haven't really thought about it at all," Ristolainen said a week ago. "Those are things I can't really control what's going to happen. I really enjoy my time in Philly, I like my teammates a lot and the whole staff. It's been good so far besides the games. We're not where we [want to be] at but I still believe in this group."
Is he a part of the Flyers' solution moving forward? Does he view Philadelphia as a place where he can finally win?
These will be important questions as the March 21 trade deadline nears.
"We need more top-end talent. I also think we need some bigger, more competitive people, too," Fletcher said Jan. 26. "You look at that game last night, the Islanders are a big, heavy team, and we had our hands full. So we need to do a better job in competing in that area as we go forward and Ristolainen can certainly be part of a six-man defense core and bring an element that not a lot of people have.
"The goal when we traded for him was to keep him. And obviously he's a pending UFA, he will control a lot of that discussion and we'll work with his representation to see what makes sense."
For Fletcher, as the Flyers aim to "aggressively retool," he'll have to make his best read on the Ristolainen decision. At the trade deadline, it's possible Fletcher could recoup some of what he lost in the July move. Contending teams love expiring contracts and Ristolainen's game oozes with playoff intensity.
The Flyers envisioned Ristolainen slotting into a deeper defensive group in which there wouldn't be as much responsibility on his plate compared to his days in Buffalo, where his goal-prevention metrics were not pretty. With a healthy Ryan Ellis, he could be a No. 4 on the Flyers' blue line. Without a healthy Ryan Ellis, the Flyers' entire defense has felt a trickle-down effect.
"I think we had high expectations like you should and things didn't go like we planned," Ristolainen said. "But we still can't feel sorry about ourselves, we've still got to work and push. Hopefully we get some guys back from injuries soon and then we put some wins together."
The Flyers have a good reason to believe Ristolainen can help them get back to relevancy and contention. He's only 27 years old and provides qualities the Flyers were missing last season: an imposing defenseman who welcomes confrontation and draws penalties.
"When Risto's playing that physical game, he's in guys' faces and things like that, it's really tough for an opposing team to play against," Joel Farabee said Dec. 29. "I know when he was in Buffalo, I hated playing against him."
Ristolainen has two goals, nine assists and a minus-10 rating this season. His 144 hits are eighth most in the NHL. Through 21 games under interim head coach Mike Yeo, he has been even in the plus-minus department and has put up seven points (one goal, six assists).
Ristolainen and Travis Sanheim have shown promising signs when paired together.
"Right from Day 1, Risto, he is just all in to being a Flyer and doing whatever he can to help win," Yeo said Dec. 26. "He just wants to win. He wants to contribute and be a force with the physicality but also his defensive play.
"What I've seen is a guy I think is really comfortable with the group now, he's a guy that's confident playing with Sanny, going out on the ice, playing top matchups against top offensive lines out there. He looks very confident in his game."
The Flyers did pay a big price for Ristolainen. And the price looks bigger now in the Flyers' second straight underachieving season, which has placed a spotlight on the team's need for drafting more "top-end talent."
But half a season is a small sample size to judge the Ristolainen trade. Is he a piece to a turnaround? Fletcher will have to decide soon because the Flyers can't afford to lose him for nothing in unrestricted free agency.
Not after paying that price.
Ultimately, Ristolainen will dictate whether the trade was a win or not for the Flyers. So far, he has enjoyed Philadelphia and the fans despite the losses mounting.
"I think they're very passionate and I love that about them," Ristolainen said. "I wish we could play better and get some wins for them, but I think better times are ahead."
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