Tortorella Making Contentious Flyers Lineup Decisions

John Tortorella and the Philadelphia Flyers entered the 2022-23 season on a mission to restore pride back into the organization after back-to-back embarrassing seasons in 2020-21 and 2021-22. Buzz words like accountability and standard came up constantly during all types of offseason conversations surrounding the team. The players, fans, and everyone surrounding the team knew the first season under the fiery head coach wouldn’t include a softball approach.

The chatter over the weekend focused on Tortorella’s decision to blow off a postgame press conference in Columbus and his short fuse with the media surrounding two matinees in Philadelphia. The Flyers are getting exactly what they signed up for with their new head coach. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and communicates his opinions by words and actions. The distribution of ice time in Philadelphia through 15 games in 20220-23 is the clearest indicator of the move towards a new standard.

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Assignment of ice time is typically the most revealing indicator of a coach’s feelings towards a particular player. Tortorella has never been afraid to go against the expectations of player usage. Look no further than Pierre-Luc Dubois and Patrik Laine, two star players who got traded for each other and benched by Tortorella within weeks as members of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Konecny, Hayes Benching

The Flyers surprisingly chose to send 2019 first-round pick Cam York to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the American Hockey League (AHL) to begin the season. However, the first true statement of accountability during the Tortorella era came when Kevin Hayes and Travis Konecny sat out the third period of a shutout loss against the San Jose Sharks on Oct. 23. The two forwards have as much of an offensive track record as any player available for the current lineup given the long-term injuries to Sean Couturier and Cam Atkinson.

John Tortorella Philadelphia Flyers
Philadelphia Flyers Head Coach John Tortorella (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

“He’s (Tortorella has) been honest about that since day one of camp. Doesn’t matter who you are, you’ve got to play the right way. If we weren’t doing the right things tonight, and I know I was out there for two goals. I had some mistakes tonight. It’s his decision,” Konecny said after the incident.

The decision seemed like a message to the team collectively during a game Tortorella himself called a poor effort all around. By holding two reputable veterans accountable for a lackluster effort, the two-time Jack Adams winner demonstrated his willingness to challenge any player on the roster. It was the same standard that DuBois and Laine learned the hard way in Columbus.

Hayes and Konecny responded well. They didn’t react emotionally in postgame interviews. They simply came to work harder the following game. The pair of Philadelphia first-liners tallied two assists each in a victory over the Florida Panthers at the Wells Fargo Center three days later. Konecny leads all Flyers forwards in average time on ice (ATOI), and Hayes sits third despite the mishap against San Jose. They are first and second on the team in scoring, respectively.

Rasmus Ristolainen

A lower-body injury kept Rasmus Ristolainen out of the lineup for the first six games of the regular season, and he has had a rough time finding a rhythm since returning healthy. The 10-year veteran defenseman has played over 20 minutes ATOI in eight consecutive seasons, even logging over 25 minutes per game as a member of the Buffalo Sabres for three consecutive seasons in 2015-16, 2016-17, and 2017-18.

The Flyers inked him to a five-year, $25.5 million contract extension beginning in the 2022-23 season. He played just four games under his new head coach before landing as a healthy scratch against the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 5. 

Rasmus Ristolainen, Philadelphia Flyers
Rasmus Ristolainen, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

“Well, he just hasn’t met them (expectations). I think he needs to play better. I’m not going to go that much deeper into it, but I don’t think he’s played well enough. He’s going to get another crack at it, but in everything about his game, I think he needs to be better,” Tortorella said about his bruising defenseman.

The promised second crack hasn’t come with the usage Ristolainen is accustomed to. He finished with a 21:26 ATOI in 2021-22 and spent the majority of the season on the second defensive pair with Travis Sanheim. He has now been relegated to the third defensive pair next to depth piece Nick Seeler. He played between 16 and 17 minutes in each of his first three games after returning to the lineup, and he logged a season low 13:52 and no ice time on special teams in Sunday’s loss to the Dallas Stars. Tortorella has weaned Ristolainen’s shorthanded ice time consistently.

Eight games under a new head coach doesn’t determine the long-term future of a player with 616 NHL games under his belt. However, Ristolainen will need to manage his habits better based on the demands of the new coaching staff if he wants to regain his position in a top-four role. Playing on the right side of the puck in proper defensive position should be a bigger focus than finishing checks for the 6-foot-4 Finn. He will also need cleaner execution in breakout passes to earn ice time based on Tortorella’s standard for performance. His expected goals for percentage (xGF%) currently sits at a cringe-worthy 35.89, well below the 50% median. 

Seeler, meanwhile, has surprisingly dressed for all 15 regular-season games while Ristolainen and Justin Braun, a 13-year veteran with over 800 career NHL games, each have one healthy scratch so far. Tortorella has spoken positively about Seeler’s play this season.  

“He’s probably one of the most competitive guys we have on our team. I think players gravitate to him, respect how he plays. He makes mistakes, but his mistakes are just through absolute total effort. For a guy I wasn’t sure who he was or, noone really talked about him being penciled in in our six, and he’s played very well,” he said.

A player who dressed for just over half of Philadelphia’s games in 2021-22 on a brutally overmatched defensive corps is earning more ice time than a player making north of $5 million in AAV acquired for a first-round draft pick, a second-round draft pick, and an NHL defenseman. Tortorella wasn’t kidding about a new standard.

Tippett, Frost, Young Forwards

Owen Tippett and Morgan Frost face a ticking clock in development at the NHL level. The opportunity for them to work into roles as key contributors for a team without top-end offensive firepower in 2022-23 will decide their NHL futures. Tippett is capitalizing on the open door, and Frost is not.

After playing only one period in the first five regular-season games because of an injury, Tippett has developed a level of confidence that has made him one of the most dangerous offensive players for the Flyers. He has three goals and three assists in 10 games, and he has found a new home on the top line with Konecny and Hayes. His 20:51 of ice time on Sunday marked his highest total in 125 career NHL regular-season games.

Morgan Frost Philadelphia Flyers
Morgan Frost, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Frost is a skilled forward who entered the NHL with high expectations as a point producer, but Tortorella has relegated him to a fourth-line role. He played just 8:37 in the loss to the Blue Jackets on Thursday. He played substantial time on the second power-play unit during both weekend games, but his offense isn’t where it needs to be if he expects to see more opportunities. The former top prospect has an xGF% of just 39.77.

Mike Yeo, the interim head coach of the Flyers for the final 60 games in 2021-22, coached Frost with an eye on the development of his 200-foot game. He demoted the talented prospect to Lehigh Valley in February at a time when the Flyers’ depth at center was barren. Frost has already sat out one game as a healthy scratch in 2022-23. He will find himself out of the lineup again unless there is noticeable improvement.

The Flyers sent Tanner Laczynski to the AHL on Monday and recalled winger Max Willman. The decision to option Laczynski came after his ice time on the fourth line dwindled. Tortorella also shortened his bench on opening night when he sat Hayden Hodgson during the third period. The Flyers sent Hodgson to the AHL before the next game.

The New Standard

Tortorella spoke after the loss to the Dallas Stars on Sunday about the way the players have grown to understand the new standard for performance within the organization. 

“I like the guys. I’d be a lot more upset with a loss if I don’t think they’re trying. You can boo us. You can talk s*** about us. I will back those guys because they are trying. If it was an effort problem, then it’s a different story. Those are the things that I have to coach. Those are the things that I have to be fair about when we’re trying to build this team. I’m very pleased with the effort. I don’t give a s*** what people think about out here.”

-John Tortorella

Ivan Provorov, second among skaters in ATOI, confirmed that the players are on the same page as their new head coach about the standard they’re held to. 

“I think it’s kind of been clear since camp. You’ve got to work hard. Everybody’s going to make mistakes out there. He’s not going to punish you for it, but if you’re not working hard, that’s where you’re going to have a problem with him.”

Flyers fans should expect more controversial lineup decisions and media clashes for the rest of the season. The fire of John Tortorella is here to stay after he signed a four-year, $16 million contract during the offseason. His intention to separate players who are a part of the problem from players who are part of the solution has been clearly communicated and put into practice. Now, the organization will need to wait and see who survives the challenge.

All advanced stats apply to 5-on-5 play, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.