Why Tortorella is ‘anxious to see' and ‘work with' Ristolainen's style of defense


VOORHEES, N.J. — A significant reason why the Flyers wanted Rasmus Ristolainen was his in-your-face defense.

It's a style of play that has dissipated from the game the more the talent level has climbed.

But it's needed.

"I think there's not enough of it, probably," Scott Laughton said Wednesday.

John Tortorella is in that camp, too.

"Oh, God yeah," the head coach said.

For the first time this season, the Flyers will have their bruiser on the back end. Ristolainen was out during the Flyers' 4-2-0 start because of a lower-body injury. The 6-foot-4 Finnish defenseman will make his season debut Thursday when the Flyers host the Panthers (7 p.m. ET/NBCSP). It will also be his 28th birthday.

Ristolainen got after it in two straight days of practice and felt good.

"Always when you practice, you try to go 100 percent out there," he said. "Try to engage and have some contact situations."

The Flyers will roll with 11 forwards and seven blueliners against Florida. Along with Ristolainen, winger Owen Tippett will make his return after suffering an upper-body injury in the first period of the season. The Flyers will play an extra defenseman with forwards James van Riemsdyk (broken finger) and Tanner Laczynski (family matter) unavailable.

More: Flyers suffer tough break with van Riemsdyk, who has seen this injury before

General manager Chuck Fletcher acquired Ristolainen during July 2021 in a trade with the Sabres. The Flyers re-signed him to a five-year, $25.5 million contract extension in March last season. Ristolainen missed the club's final nine games of the 2021-22 campaign with an upper-body injury, so Thursday night will be his first regular-season game in a little under 200 days.

"Risto's a great player, important player for this team," Ivan Provorov said. "His size, his reach, his physicality is definitely a big part of his game and a pretty important part of defending well, giving your team momentum."

Tortorella appreciates Ristolainen's brand of defense.

"I think that's how you have to play defense is stiff and hard and at you," the 64-year-old head coach said Wednesday. "There's just too much talent in this league. It's a problem we have. We mirror, we watch them play, we think we have them because they're on the outside, but there's so many things going behind that play with people cutting and darting. Talented people find people.

"The longer they have the puck and it's not stopped, it's better for the other guys without the puck to get away from their check. It gives them more of an opportunity. That's why we want to stop it as quickly as possible. That's the way we play defense. We play a layered defense, but it starts with our initial contact on the puck."

Tortorella wants Ristolainen to balance big hits with smart reads. Being out of position has been a knock on Ristolainen.

"He's a big body and he's willing to get involved," Tortorella said Tuesday. "I want him to understand our coverages, the way we play defense.

"I think the biggest thing is I don't want him just looking for the big hits. I think you start looking for big hits as a defenseman, you end up on the outside and that's when people start coming through you. I want the physicality, but I also want some patience and positioning in his game.

"When he does play, he's going to be revved up, I'm sure that's going to be something where we're going to have to calm him down a little bit, looking for those big hits. We'll work with him."

Ristolainen understands what Tortorella and assistant coach Brad Shaw will ask of him.

"Try to play smart and kill plays," Ristolainen said. "Try to get the puck more than go through the guy."

But they'll take that in-your-face nastiness.

"I think the game's kind of gone away from it," Laughton said. "But you get into a game like Nashville where they have a couple of big boys and we do too, it's fun games to play in. It brings out the best in some guys."

Thursday night will be Tortorella's first game as Ristolainen's coach.

"I didn't really concentrate too much on him when he was playing with other teams, but heard some really good things out here from the reports I get from Chuck and the staff," Tortorella said. "So I'm anxious to see him play." 

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