Rasmus Ristolainen was the Flyers’ first-pair defenseman against the Vegas Golden Knights and played more than 25 minutes.
That would make sense for a player who’s on a five-year contract with an annual average value of $5.1 million per year. But Ristolainen also was scratched 16 games ago and on the third pair six games ago. He’s got zero goals, zero assists and was minus-4 this season heading into Sunday’s game (an improvement from years when he has finished as low as minus-41). Before getting promoted, he was playing fewer than 20 minutes a night.
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Meanwhile, another player on a $5 million-a-year deal sat out the game in Vegas. Before the game, coach John Tortorella announced that Tony DeAngelo would be a healthy scratch in favor of Cam York, whom they called up from the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. DeAngelo was injured recently, but Tortorella said it was a “coach’s decision.” Entering Sunday, DeAngelo had four goals and 10 assists this season, but his plus-minus was worse than Ristolainen’s at minus-13. However, he was also shouldering the bulk of game time for a long stretch of the season, which Tortorella said attributed to his sloppy play.
DeAngelo’s contract runs through the 2023-24 season, and the Flyers haven’t committed as much of their future to him financially as Ristolainen. But they gave away pieces of their future to get him, as well as pieces of their reputation.
On the second day of the 2022 NHL draft, the Flyers traded away their 2022 fourth-round pick, one of three 2023 third-round picks, and a 2024 second-round pick, for DeAngelo and a seventh-round pick. The Flyers previously have used second-round picks to select the likes of goalie Carter Hart and forward Wade Allison.
Although they made a strong show of support for DeAngelo, saying they had done their due diligence when deciding to trade for him, the Flyers knew they were adding a player with a checkered past. DeAngelo’s choices have caused problems for him on and off the ice, including being benched as a healthy scratch several times.
There’s no indication the latest move is behavior-related. There’s no indication it’s health-related, since Tortorella said he was a healthy scratch. There’s also no indication it’s a result of some of DeAngelo’s recent sloppy performances, since the only explanation Tortorella provided was that it was the coach’s choice.
Whatever the root cause, that’s twice now that the Flyers have had a defenseman they’re committing more than 6% of their salary-cap space to sitting out a game.
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With the decisions Flyers management has made lately, if Tortorella decides to bench any of the top-four defensemen, there will be at least $4.675 million sitting out (although Travis Sanheim’s contract with an AAV of $4.675 million will bump up to $6.25 million next season). Tortorella hasn’t been shy about mentioning that he needs more from all four of them.
Benching is a commonly used tool in Tortorella’s arsenal of tactics to force players to be their best. He hasn’t been afraid to use it against his veterans, and it has worked, with Travis Konecny returning from a third-period benching to play better than ever.
But none of these defensemen are new to the league. They’re veterans, and they’re making more than the majority of the forwards. Flyers management has committed to them for the long haul, but Tortorella is still deciding whether they better serve his team’s future by staying or leaving.
Ristolainen has been playing better since getting scratched, showing a commitment to blocking shots and doing a better job shutting down plays. DeAngelo may, too. But will they play well enough to justify a commitment of $35.5 million and three draft picks?