Never let it be said Chuck Fletcher isn’t a man of his word.
One day after the Flyers general manager told the world he was willing to trade away his first-round (13th overall) draft pick for the right price, he did exactly that.
Hours before the 2021 NHL Entry Draft was set to commence on Friday night, Fletcher put together a package which included the aforementioned pick, plus defenseman Robert Hagg and a 2023 second-round choice and sent it shuffling off to Buffalo for Finnish defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen.
The 26-year-old Ristolainen just happens to be a right-handed shot, something the Flyers coveted to complete three sets of righty-lefty combinations on their blue line.
Newly acquired Ryan Ellis plus veteran Justin Braun are the other right-handed shots on the roster.
Ristolainen is entering the final year of a six-year, $32.4-million ($5.4-million AAV) which began with the 2016-17 campaign. The Flyers are picking up for the full total for the last year of the contract.
“We are extremely happy to add Rasmus to our blueline,” said Fletcher. “He is a 26-year-old, right-shot defenseman who will immediately add grit to our team. His size, mobility and physicality will make him an important piece to our group going forward.”
Reached at his home in Finland, the 6-foot-4, 218-pound Ristolainen talked about what attributes he brings to the Flyers. One of those is “toughness,’’ something the Flyers could use for their skill-laden lineup.
“I would say I’m a player other teams hate to play against,’’ he said. “I try to be pain in the ass. I can do everything – penalty kill, power play, I can pass the puck, shoot the puck. So, I can play any type of role, I like to hit. Do anything that it takes to win.’’
Fletcher said it was a difficult decision to trade his first pick after all the work his scouting department had put in to research the field of prospects.
But Ristolainen’s a player the Flyers have been tracking for quite some time.
“He’s a player we’ve been looking at for the last three years,’’ Fletcher said. “We like our defense corps, we think we have some good pieces but we felt we lacked a little bit of size and physicality on the back end.’’
Ristolainen toiled for a team which hasn’t made the playoffs in a decade, so his analytics numbers are nothing to write home about. It’s safe to say he could use a change of scenery.
“He had a rotating cast of partners, a rotating cast of coaches,’’ Fletcher said. “Buffalo is a team that’s had a lot of turnover the last few years. We believe we have a really good mix of defensemen now. When players are slotted in the right role, they have a much better chance to improve. We like the skill set he brings.’’
Ristolainen admitted the years in Buffalo haven’t been easy.
“We had (some) really tough years,’’ he said. “I played a big part, I was one of the leaders there. We couldn’t make the playoffs. When that’s the case, you have to make some moves. Players get traded and now I’m very excited to go to Philadelphia. I’m going to do anything I can to help the team make the playoffs.’’
Ristolainen has played his entire 542-game career with the Sabres dating back to his debut during the 2013-14 season.
He has appeared in all but 27 of Buffalo’s games over the past seven seasons. Ristolainen appeared in 49 games last year, posting four goals and 14 assists for 18 points along with 36 penalty minutes.
A native of Turku, Finland, Ristolainen was selected by the Sabres in the first round (8th overall) of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.
It’s been one frustrating season after another and Ristolainen would like to experience what it would be like to compete in the playoffs.
“I think where I am at my best is when I play meaningful games,’’ he said. “I see myself as a playoff kind of player. I think Philly is very close to battling for a playoff spot.’’
Meanwhile, the Flyers lost a popular player in the transaction, as Hagg was constantly among the team leaders in hits and blocked shots.
No doubt both teammates and fans will be sorry to see him go.
“Robert is a great human being,’’ Fletcher said. “This is a contract year for him and there have been some uncertainty as to what his role was here. For him, it gives him an opportunity to hopefully play more minutes in a year that’s important to his career. He was a heart and soul guy, popular teammate and someone who earned the respect of everyone in the organization.’’
The Swede made his NHL debut with the Flyers on April 9, 2017 and appeared in 235 more games for the club over the next four seasons. He scored 13 goals and added 34 assists for 47 points, along with 143 penalty minutes.
A 6-foot-2, 204-pound native of Uppsala, Sweden, Hagg was selected by the Flyers in the second round (41st overall) of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.
Hagg, who had one year to go on a two-year contract which paid him $1.6 million annually, is the third defenseman traded by the Flyers in July. Previously, Philippe Myers was shipped to Nashville as part of the Ryan Ellis swap and Shayne Gostisbehere went to Arizona for salary cap considerations.
If the season started tomorrow, the Flyers probably would have Ellis paired with Ivan Provorov on the first defense unit; Ristolainen with Travis Sanheim on the second and Braun with 2019 first-round pick Cam York on the third.
Ristolainen said he’s open to the idea of entertaining a contract extension at some point. Fletcher said he feels the same way. . .The Finnish backliner had to deal with COVID early in the past season and said after the first 10 games he really wasn’t himself for the rest of the season. But he’s fully healthy now.