The Philadelphia Flyers will not promote interim head coach Mike Yeo to the full-time role for the 2022-23 season. General manager (GM) Chuck Fletcher and the hockey operations department will begin their search for his replacement immediately. Veteran winger Cam Atkinson brought up the name of his former head coach John Tortorella without being prompted during his exit interview last weekend, and buzz is swirling in Philadelphia.
After a decade marked mostly by mediocrity and punctuated by two abysmal seasons, will the Flyers make the big splash and hire the most polarizing NHL coach of the 21st century to put themselves back in the spotlight? They are reportedly interested already.
Tortorella- A Successful Coaching Candidate
Tortorella has spent parts of 20 seasons as an NHL head coach for four different teams. He coached the 2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning team that defeated the Flyers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on their way to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. He has led teams to a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs 12 times.
His colorful personality, high emotion, and demanding attitude have led to a considerable amount of conflicts with players, media members, and opponents during his time in the NHL. His past certainly isn’t spotless, and his tendency to speak with an edge regularly lands him in the news for good and bad reasons. His comments about Trevor Zegras and Sonny Milano dominated the chatter around the hockey world earlier this season, but like many instances with Tortorella, the situation blew up to unnecessary proportions.
Despite the demanding attitude, most of Tortorella’s former players speak highly of him. Even Pierre-Luc Dubois, who had a messy exit from the Columbus Blue Jackets during Tortorella’s tenure as their head coach, spoke about his high opinion of the 13th winningest coach in league history.
“Nothing’s personal (from Tortorella). I grew up with a dad who’s a coach and he told me if a coach challenges you, it’s never personal. He just wants what’s best for you. And that’s how I see Torts, and I have nothing but respect for him,” Dubois said.
Related: Flyers Must Pursue Jim Montgomery as Next Head Coach
Notable Blue Jackets veterans Oliver Bjorkstrand, Seth Jones, Boone Jenner, and Zach Werenski also spoke respectfully about Tortorella immediately after his time in Columbus ended. Michael Del Zotto, a player Tortorella pushed to his limits while they spent time together in the New York Rangers organization, summarized a reasonable and mature opinion about his former coach.
“The thing with Torts, you know where you stand with him. He’s brutally honest. If you can take it, if you have thick skin, there’s no other coach you’d rather play for. When you play for coaches where you don’t know where you stand, it’s tough to have a conversation with (them). You’re not sure if they’re telling the truth or not with you. With him, you know where you stand every day, and that’s very hard to find. He wears his heart on his sleeve, too. He would do anything for his players.”
While Tortorella’s style might not be popular with everyone he works with, he is far from an unforgiving tyrant with nothing to offer the modern game. He has maximized the talent on his rosters and produced impressive results at many points during his career as a head coach, and he could do so again in the right situation.
Tortorella’s Fit with the Flyers
Before the 2021-22 season began, Elliotte Friedman spoke about how players on the Flyers felt that Alain Vigneault and his coaching staff failed to “walk a line between being demanding and being hard and being fair” while the team struggled in 2020-21. The decision by Fletcher to retain Vigneault as head coach entering 2021-22 backfired quickly, as he only last 22 games.
Tortorella and Vigneault come from the same old school mold in a certain sense. However, the way that Tortorella’s former players in Columbus spoke about him indicates a key difference in style. If he coached the Flyers, he would likely show a better understanding of how to walk the “line” that Friedman referred to. He has the ability to earn the trust of his players in a way that Vigneault failed to do in 2020-21 and 2021-22.
Atkinson spent six seasons during the prime years of his career playing under Tortorella in Columbus before moving on to Philadelphia last offseason. During the team’s exit interviews, he spoke about how the right attitude and better practice habits might help the Flyers rebound in 2022-23.
“You practice how you play. Especially when I turned pro, I learned that from Tortorella. John Tortorella, he was great in that aspect. There just wasn’t a lot of practice times (in 2021-22), and it was hard to kind of mold and gel as a group when you’re playing so many games because there’s only so much you can watch video and stuff but you can’t really get on the ice and do it. Going into next year, we need to find a way to have more grit, some more jam, and some more “f you” to our game. On both sides of the puck, in or crease, defending our goalie, and in their crease. I think we were a pretty soft team this year, in my opinion.”-Cam Atkinson
Conversations about becoming “harder to play against” have circulated within the Flyers organization. There is a sentiment in Philadelphia that the Flyers need to find a way to recreate the intimidating attitude that defined their intensity and swagger during the most successful eras in franchise history. The preference for physical players who bring an edge to the game factored heavily into their decision to sign Rasmus Ristolainen to a five-year, $25.5 million extension in March.
Jason Myrtetus accurately stated on the Flyers Daily podcast that “The head coach is a lot of times the personality that a team takes.” The move to hire Tortorella would align with a priority to become harder to play against in the sense of grit, intensity, and the attitude that Atkinson discussed. However, would the successful resurgence of that attitude mean a return to the glory of Flyers past?
Fletcher Seeing It Differently
Fletcher didn’t echo the same sentiment as Atkinson during exit interviews.
“I think we did add some tougher players this year. I’m not sure toughness was an issue, but going back to what I said earlier, when you defend all the time you create problems. You are constantly battling in front of the net and are stuck in the corner. Our ability to get the puck and have better puck support will allow us to play with the puck more often.”
James van Riemsdyk also discussed different ways to be harder to play against. He spoke about how the Colorado Avalanche, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Florida Panthers don’t necessarily have to be the most intimidating physical teams. He called them “teams that have the puck, make smart plays with the puck and play in a way where they’re keeping the puck” to make it tougher on opponents.
The need to be harder to play against in the sense of grit and intensity likely won’t be Fletcher’s main focus this offseason. During the exit interview, he emphasized the success of the 2019-20 Flyers because of good puck support and habits that allowed them to control the puck for extended periods. He said the upcoming offseason might have some similarities to the 2019 offseason when key pieces of the 2019-20 team arrived in Philadelphia.
St. Louis Blues assistant coach Jim Montgomery had an “obsession with (puck) possession” during his tenure as the head coach of the Dallas Stars in 2018-19 and 2019-20 (from Dallas Morning News, ‘Puck don’t lie: Jim Montgomery’s obsession with possession becomes a common theme for Stars,’ 11/12/18). As another coaching candidate, he provides an alternative style that aligns with the needs of the Flyers more appropriately. As a coach who understands the need to relate to players in the modern era while also instilling discipline and intensity, he provides the perfect medium between Vigneault and Philadelphia’s previous full-time coach Dave Hakstol.
Tortorella is an excellent hockey coach with a successful track record. He can bring a lot the Flyers and to any NHL team that wants to maximize the talent on their roster. However, the Flyers have an ideal candidate they can’t ignore in Montgomery. The former Flyers center and long-time minor leaguer within the organization can command the same type of respect behind the bench as Tortorella if he implements the type of system that can help the Flyers win.