The Philadelphia Flyers lost their first game out of the All-Star Break but followed it up with an exhilarating shootout victory over the Edmonton Oilers at the Wells Fargo Center on Feb. 9. As they approach the 2023 Trade Deadline, however, the focus will not be on the ice. A letter from head coach John Tortorella has caused a stir in the City of Brotherly Love. Trade rumors, tension in the power structure of the front office, and seemingly endless discussions about a rebuild have stolen the spotlight.
The John Tortorella Letter
The biggest headline of the week came when the organization sent a letter from Tortorella to season ticket holders about the state of the team. The letter told fans something they already knew: the Flyers are nowhere close to contending for a Stanley Cup or even a playoff spot.
“Now, I’m not going to lie to you– and I want to be clear about this – we’re not there yet. This year was the first step in building the future of the Flyers and restoring our reputation as one of the most respected teams in hockey,” the eight-paragraph letter stated.
The release of the letter ignited the debate about the need for a rebuild in Philadelphia. It mirrored the letter released by the Rangers in February 2018 before they dealt away Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh, and J.T. Miller to start their rebuild. Although Tortorella’s letter never called the situation a rebuild, he explicitly used the word in reference to the Flyers for a second time this season during a radio interview on 97.5 The Fanatic.
“I’m going to say (it) right now again. We are rebuilding, and we are on the ground floor of rebuilding. But I have to show my team respect that they’ve kept themselves in it. They’ve kept themselves within the reach of looking to try to catch some teams. I’m not going to lose sight of the rebuild, but as an organization, you need to have respect for your team when and if they keep on playing those meaningful games,” he said.
Neither message to the respective fan bases in Philadelphia or New York contained information with much substance. Many people have made the mistake of equating a rebuild with a plan to tank for better odds in the NHL Draft Lottery. The Flyers do not have the talent to compete with Stanley Cup contenders, and they are incredibly unlikely to remain in the hunt for a playoff spot. However, they also have no intention of sinking to the bottom of the league standings to increase their lottery odds. The rest is repetitive semantics.
“I just don’t get the word tanking and how it’s so prevalent in our game. Athletes don’t tank. They wouldn’t even know how to spell the word. That’s what’s so great about our game, so we’re trying to win every game we possibly can,” Tortorella told the Philadelphia media.
The more important takeaway from the letter has to do with the balance of power within the organization. Fans have vehemently called for Chuck Fletcher to lose his job over the past two seasons. The Philadelphia general manager (GM) sang a different tune than Tortorella in December when he spoke optimistically about the team’s chances to close the gap in the standings and earn a playoff berth with the help of some veterans returning from injury.
Tortorella followed up Fletcher’s misguided optimism by explicitly using the word rebuild for the first time three weeks later. He has consistently emphasized that the Flyers don’t have adequate talent on the ice this season while shifting the focus to areas of player development and a better organizational standard, just like the letter stated. The organization’s decision to release the letter with Tortorella’s signature signifies a victory for the head coach and a waning role of a GM on the hot seat.
Carter Hart Robs McDavid
Carter Hart stole two points from the Oilers in an outstanding performance on Thursday night. The Sherwood Park, Alberta native stopped 34 of the 35 shots he faced, including a quick wrister from Connor McDavid in overtime that sent the Philadelphia crowd into a frenzy. The young goaltender couldn’t hide the smile from his face after the big save.
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“Those two guys (McDavid and Leon Draisaitl) are some of the best guys if not the best guys in the league, and they’ve got a lot of skill there up front. But I thought we really stuck to our game tonight and just grinded hard,” Hart said.
Kevin Hayes scored the only goal in regulation for the Flyers, and he wasn’t surprised about the outstanding performance by his goaltender.
“He (Hart) has been like that all year, honestly. He is the backbone of this team and is an unbelievable goalie. We see it in practice every day. He allows us to know that if there is a breakdown or anything, we know he is there,” Hayes said.
2023 NHL Trade Deadline
The chaos leading up to the 2023 Trade Deadline has already heated up. After the New York Islanders acquired Bo Horvat on Jan. 30, the cross-town rival Rangers matched the in-season splash by acquiring Vladimir Tarasenko from the St. Louis Blues. The Rangers now look like they have a chance to keep up with the favorites in the Eastern Conference. They’ll play in Philadelphia on March 1.
What does it mean for the Flyers? They’re on the opposite end of the spectrum as a clear seller. Contending teams will look to pluck any veteran players they can. While recent All-Star selection Kevin Hayes has come up in rumors, there are obstacles to trading the 6-foot-5 forward. His $7.14 million annual cap hit through 2025-26 will scare some teams away. There’s also the factor of a position change from center to wing this season and an obvious disconnect between Tortorella and Hayes. When a head coach deliberately benches a highly-paid player, it negatively affects the perception of the player around the league.
Tortorella has consistently pushed off the thought of the 2023 Trade Deadline as a topic that’s relevant to his team. James van Riemsdyk, the most likely trade chip on the Flyers, echoed the same mentality.
“I think, ultimately, sometimes it’s hard to do around this time of year, but I think everyone’s got to have that professionalism, a mindset of professionalism. Come in, worry about what you can control. Do your job, things like that,” van Riemsdyk said.
Development of Owen Tippett
The Flyers have looked to evaluate young talent during the 2022-23 season to see who will be part of the future in Philadelphia, and Owen Tippett has proven himself as much as any skater. The former 10th-overall pick has become one of the best offensive players on the roster. He set a new career high in points before the All-Star Break, and he is currently on a 24-goal pace per 82 games with 14 in 48 games.
Tippett has developed an excellent burst of speed in the transition game, especially in the neutral zone carrying the puck up ice. His 49.10 expected goals for percentage (xGF%) ranks third on the team. Tortorella has encouraged his 23-year-old winger to work toward playing the game of a power forward, and van Riemsdyk spoke highly of his teammate’s recent play.
“He’s definitely starting to dictate the style of game that he wants to play. You saw tonight he was shot out of a cannon a few times and really good on the forecheck and getting pucks back,” van Riemsdyk said after the loss on Feb. 6.
Tippett struggled to find his footing in the NHL before 2022-23 partly because he wasn’t finishing on the chances he generated. His career shooting percentage (SH%) sat at just 7.9% entering the season. He had an 11.6% rate in 2022-23 entering the game against the Oilers. As the Flyers approach the late stretch of the season, Tippett is proving that he can utilize his raw skill in a way he wasn’t able to do in the Florida Panthers organization.
The Flyers also announced on Thursday that they placed Linus Högberg on unconditional waivers for the purpose of terminating his contract. The 24-year-old played his only two career NHL games last season. He will return to Sweden.
The Flyers will finish off their homestand with a pair of weekend matinees. The first is on Saturday at 12:30 pm against the Nashville Predators. The matchup against the Seattle Kraken on Sunday at 1 pm will be the local fan base’s warmup before watching the Philadelphia Eagles play in Super Bowl LVII.
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