In his three NHL drafts with the Flyers, general manager Chuck Fletcher has never ruled out trading his first-round pick. However, he has always held the first-round selection in high regard.
While Fletcher admitted he would be more willing to trade the Flyers' first-round pick this offseason compared to the past two, he was adamant about not frivolously selling the 13th overall spot.
"If you're going to move the 13th overall pick, either by itself or as part of a package, you better be getting a really good player that can help you for a few years," Fletcher said this month.
That will inevitably be the big debate with the Flyers' acquisition of defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. Fletcher dealt the Flyers' 2021 first-round pick to the Sabres in a package for Ristolainen about six hours before the draft kicked off Friday night. In the deal, the Flyers also sent Robert Hagg and a 2023 second-round selection to Buffalo.
The 26-year-old Ristolainen is entering the final year of his deal with a $5.4 million cap hit. After the 2021-22 season, the Flyers will have to make sure they're his best fit and they can re-sign him. Fletcher said on Friday that the club views Ristolainen as having a "very good chance" to be a part of its future.
As for Ristolainen's impact being worth a first-round pick, it's pretty early to judge that. This offseason, it appears teams are willing to pay a price in trades because of the increased difficulty to add in free agency with the flat cap. Ristolainen is an imposing, 6-foot-4 defenseman with a blend of physicality and underrated skill. He played big minutes at an early age on a struggling Sabres team which didn't make the playoffs once during his eight seasons in Buffalo. So while he's had four 40-plus-point seasons and led the Sabres in minutes per game (23:53) during his tenure, his on-ice goal differential at even strength was minus-151 in his eight seasons.
"I think it's all context in what he was asked to do," Fletcher said Friday. "Played a lot of minutes, had a rotating cast of partners, a rotating cast of coaches. Buffalo's clearly a team that's been developing and had a lot of turnover the last few years. We believe that we have a really good mix of defensemen now, we have a good veteran team and I think we have some pretty good stability right now on our back end. I think anytime players are slotted in the right role with the right mix of players around them, they have a much better chance to improve and look better.
"We're obviously banking on that and we like the skill set that he brings. There's still an important role for size and physicality in this game. He's a guy that's been able to put some points up, he can skate, he can move the puck. He's still a pretty young man that like any 25-, 26-, 27-year-old, these guys can still improve. It's still a tough position to learn."
Flyers said it was "extremely difficult" in deciding to part ways with their 2021 first-round pick.
"The amateur guys work hard all year to draft players," Fletcher said. "I think for us right now, look, we're coming off a tough season. We've spent a lot of years accumulating draft picks and drafting a lot of young men and we still have a lot of great prospects in our system, we haven't traded any of our prospects, so we feel it's important to make our team more competitive. To get more competitive, we felt we needed to add some right-shot defensemen to our club this year to complement [Ivan] Provorov and [Travis] Sanheim and to kind of slot everybody in the right spot. We feel if that group can improve, then our team will improve.
"We have a lot of young players that will matriculate up into the NHL over the next one, two, three years. I think it's exciting. We still have a lot of good youth, we still have picks, but anytime you trade a first-round pick, it's difficult."
The Flyers want to be tougher to play against in 2021-22 after allowing more goals than anyone else in hockey last season at 3.52 per game. Goal prevention and playing the right way can be a mindset as much they are strategy. In eight games against the Flyers last season, Ristolainen played a team-high 22:03 minutes per game, was a plus-three and had 42 hits. The next closest Sabre in hits was Rasmus Dahlin with 15. But, Ristolainen's goal-prevention numbers were not good in Buffalo over the course of his time there. The Flyers will have to show their setting and coaching can breed better results.
"I would say I'm a player that the other team hates to play against and I try to be a pain in the ass," Ristolainen said Friday. "I kind of 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, I like to hit — just do anything it takes to win.
"I've been thinking about it for a while the last few seasons because where I think I'm at my best is when I play meaningful games and then I see myself as a playoff type of player. Not that young anymore, but still young. But I need to get some meaningful games and try to make the playoffs. I think Philly, they're very close, right up there to battling those playoff spots."
Fletcher's offseason maneuvering isn't necessarily done.
"Still want to look at potentially adding some players that can help with the penalty kill up front," Fletcher said. "Those are the types of discussions we're having now."
Free agency opens next Wednesday, but Fletcher said don't expect any more trades over the weekend. The Flyers will make their first 2021 draft pick in the second round Saturday (11 a.m. ET/NHL Network). They have six picks, with a selection in each round.
"It was important to me if I was going to give up a second-round pick as a secondary piece, that we didn't do it this year," Fletcher said about the Ristolainen trade. "We do feel that this draft in particular, because of the lack of viewings on some players, there could be an opportunity in the second round to land a player with upside that maybe wasn't seen as much. Our scouts feel pretty strongly that the depth of this draft goes through the third round even, so we wanted to make sure we kept our second this year, that was very important if you're going to lose your first. Putting in a second-round pick a couple years out gives us the opportunity to recoup that pick and deal with that situation as we go forward."
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