What a weekend for Philadelphia sports. The NLCS-bound Phillies, the 6-0 Eagles, and… the undefeated Philadelphia Flyers?
Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The Flyers have been looked down upon as the ugly stepsister of Philly sports for a few years now. The once feared club characterized by the reputation and success of the Broad Street Bullies of the seventies, along with years amongst the top of the Metropolitan Division and a myriad of playoff appearances from 1994-2012, the Flyers have lost their identity and respect in the league in recent years, especially after hitting rock bottom last season.
“We have zero respect in this league. I’m willing to admit that,” said head coach John Tortorella to ESPN reporter Emily Kaplan.
Prompted with what’s expected to be a long road of reset for the club, general manager Chuck Fletcher coined it as an “aggressive retool” this past January, with CEO Dave Scott going as far as to say, “we should be in it next year,” in reference to the 2022-23 season (from ‘Flyers fans right to be infuriated by ‘aggressive retool’ failures,’ The Athletic, Jul. 14, 2022).
While expectations for this year’s team by Tortorella and most Flyers fans don’t seem to line up with that of Fletcher’s and the rest of the brain trust, the 2-0 start to the season has been a pleasant surprise that at the very least has given fans flashes of hope for the club moving forward.
Forming a New Identity
Ultimately, while making the playoffs is still most definitely a long shot, the focus this year for the Flyers will be on forming a new identity rooted in an improved locker room culture and the development of their youth under a new coaching system.
In their first two games of the regular season, we saw a lot of refinements in the Flyers’ game compared to last year, but most notably, we saw them play a complete 60 minutes in both games.
In their season opener and Tortorella’s debut as head coach versus the New Jersey Devils, the Devils opened the scoring on the power play eight minutes into the first period with a goal from Alexander Holtz. Even with so much hockey left to be played, fans couldn’t help but groan at what seemed to be the start to yet another abysmal season of Flyers hockey.
However, instead of falling behind, Tortorella’s club fought back, something we didn’t see much of last year.
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The Flyers responded to the Devils with a four-goal run, starting with Wade Allison’s wrister just 23 seconds after Holtz’s power-play goal in the first period. After Allison, veteran right winger Travis Konecny notched two, along with a goal from 23-year-old center Morgan Frost. The Devils finally got back on the board in the third with a goal from Damon Severson to bring them within two, but Frost then added another to the scoresheet for the definitive 5-2 victory.
Two days later, the Flyers secured another win in their home opener against the Vancouver Canucks, even after falling behind 2-0 in the first period.
New Jersey native and lifelong Philadelphia sports fan Tony DeAngelo got one back for Philadelphia, as the defenseman recorded his first goal as a Flyer with over 200 of his family and friends in the crowd to witness the moment. Center Scott Laughton then tied the game with a shorthanded goal, and in the third period, Konecny completed the comeback with the game-winner.
Fighting back from an early 2-0 deficit, the Flyers played more inspired hockey in their second game of the season than they did arguably all last year.
The Tortorella Effect
So, what’s changed? According to the players, it’s the buy-in of the new culture Tortorella’s creating on and off the ice, something that started in training camp.
Konecny, regarded as the Flyers’ top offensive player despite a couple of down years, lauded the hard-nosed mentality Tortorella and the rest of the coaching staff implemented on the team in preseason.
“It’s what they’ve been preaching all through training camp,” said Konecny. “Everyone’s got to buy in to do it, and it’s a hard way to play, but playing the right way you’re going to get rewarded. You’re not going to win every single game, but it’s going to keep you in games and that’s what you need.”
Known for his particularly physically demanding training camps and practices, Tortorella explained the method behind his madness.
“Part of the things we do in camp, sure it’s physical, but it’s more mental and comradery,” he remarked. “I hope it works, you hope it helps, and it sounds like if they’re talking about it to you [the media], they’re thinking about it. You have a little early success coming back and finding ways to stay in gear as a team, not breaking apart, that’s all really good stuff that you can lean on when you get in that situation again.”
No more is the “country club” feel to the locker room as Cam Atkinson called it. Instead, the Flyers are more motivated than ever. “We’ve got a bunch of guys who work hard and we might not be the prettiest team, but if you don’t work hard, you don’t play,” said Kevin Hayes. “Everyone’s working really hard and it starts in practice, it starts in camp… it’s hard, but it’s a lot more fun when you win.”
Let the Kids Play
With an improved team culture, thanks to the high standards of work ethic and gameplay enforced by Tortorella’s system, in turn, it’s become a better environment to develop Philadelphia’s bountiful youth movement.
Since he joined the Flyers, Tortorella’s made it clear giving the Flyers’ youth playing time is a point of emphasis for him.
In the first two games alone, we’ve seen big contributions from Frost, Allison, DeAngelo, and Ivan Provorov. Owen Tippett made the opening night roster against New Jersey, though he suffered an upper-body injury during the game. To take his place, the Flyers called up Jackson Cates for the home opener. Following the win over Vancouver, Zack MacEwen and Louie Belpedio were called up, and 25-year-old Felix Sandstrom was activated off injured reserve to back up 24-year-old starting goaltender Carter Hart.
Philadelphia has no shortage of exciting young guys, both at the NHL level and in their farm system. As one of the youngest teams in the league, the average age on their roster is 26 years old.
The combination of Tortorella’s new system, along with the buy-in from veterans such as Konecny, Hayes, and Atkinson, fosters a much better learning environment for the Flyers’ youth. Though the organization has a lot to figure out in terms of the direction they’re going to take with so many young players, they’re already much more well-suited for the development of those guys than they were even a few months ago.
Looking Ahead: A Reality Check
Look, the Flyers aren’t going 82-0-0. Even this early in the season, I’d say if they finished above .500, that’d be exceeding expectations for this team. As I mentioned, they’ve got a long road ahead of them in terms of a retool.
The silver lining to it all is this team is in a better place than they were when their season ended last April. While they might not join the ranks of their fellow Philly sports teams in chasing a championship this year, the Flyers have the talent and potential to rebuild their identity as a club, an integral piece to success in the coming years.
With their first back-to-back of the season on the road this week with games versus the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday, and the Florida Panthers on Wednesday, we’ll get a better perspective on what to expect from this Flyers team as they take on two Cup-contending teams.