‘I love this opportunity’: John Tortorella eager to reshape Flyers’ identity
It was opening night for the Philadelphia Flyers, and pessimism swirled ahead of the Thursday night game against the New Jersey Devils. Forward Joel Farabee checked Twitter before arriving to the rink.
“Everyone is already saying our season is done,” Farabee said. “No one believes in us but ourselves.”
A clip of John Tortorella is making the rounds on the internet, as a reporter asked if the coach found something the Flyers are good at and can possibly build an identity around.
“No,” Tortorella said.
Then came the pregame introduction at Wells Fargo Arena in Philadelphia. When injured defenseman Ryan Ellis’ name was announced, the crowd erupted in boos.
Welcome to life in a city with unrelenting passion — where patience is not a luxury its sports teams enjoy. The Flyers know they can’t hide. The organization has come to terms with its reality.
The 2021-22 season was dismal. “There was a crazy amount of adversity we faced,” general manager Chuck Fletcher said. “And we didn’t handle it well, to put it mildly.”
Added veteran Cam Atkinson: “There were things that went on last year that I didn’t appreciate. … It was a bit of a country club feel.”
Initially, Fletcher said he believed his team was hamstrung by a series of unfortunate events — including roughly 500 man games lost to injury — and was an “aggressive retool” away from contending again. After a summer of soul-searching, the organization changed its tune.
Tortorella was hired for a hard reset. The veteran coach, to a fault, says exactly what he feels. His first task? “Finding out who wants to be part of this,” he said. And that means both young players the organization had been counting on and veterans who have been around for years.
A team that hires Tortorella knows what it is signing up for. Things are going to change, and the process isn’t always going to be smooth. But in the end, the team has an identity — something lacking with the Flyers the past few seasons.
“We have zero respect in this league. I’m willing to admit that,” Tortorella said. “But that’s what gets me going. I love this opportunity.”
FLYERS FANS WANTED another signing this summer: Johnny Gaudreau. The South Jersey product, one of the most skilled wingers in the league, made it known he’d love to play for his hometown team after leaving Calgary.
“We had a ton of discussions about Johnny and other top free agents and how to best spend money,” Fletcher said. “But to sign one of these $70 million, top-end players, we needed to clear cap space. That would have required us parting with first-round picks. And coming off a 61-point season, that just wasn’t palatable to us.”
As the organization received more clarity on Ellis’ prognosis — which was not looking good — defense became a priority. A major trade acquisition from Nashville in 2021, Ellis has played just four games with the Flyers, dealing with an injury that has been identified as a torn psoas muscle in his back.
According to both Fletcher and Ellis’ agent, the defenseman is not considering retirement yet. He’d desperately like to play, and is working toward that goal. This season, Ellis is living in South Jersey with his family and has been working out at the team facility. Being with the team has improved Ellis’ mental health, his agent said. But the 31-year-old is still living with pain and having some hard days. It’s highly unlikely Ellis will play this season.
Ellis was acquired to team with Ivan Provorov on Philadelphia’s top defensive pairing. So the Flyers used their cap space this summer to sign Tony DeAngelo (two years, $10 million) to play with Provorov. They also spent big on a contract extension for Travis Sanheim (eight years, $50 million).
The team wants better defensive structure to support Carter Hart. A team’s success is too often dependent on goaltending, and Tortorella said one of his No. 1 priorities is “letting the young goalie play.”
Hart has long been viewed as the solution to the organization’s decades-long goaltending carousel. Over Hart’s four-year career, he’s been solid but not spectacular: 62-61-16, a .905 save percentage and 2.97 goals-against average.
“He just turned 24 years old,” Tortorella stressed, once again reminding the fans to be patient.
And the team hasn’t played well in front of Hart, which has made the goaltender’s job harder.
Learning to defend as a team — and committing to defending — is a Tortorella hallmark.
“You don’t f—ing win if you don’t know how to play away from the puck,” he said.
TORTORELLA HAS A reputation for being hard-nosed, but it’s the worst-kept secret in the league that the coach has a huge heart.
“All people see are the YouTube clips that were from, you know, 10-plus years ago,” said Atkinson, who played for Tortorella for six years in Columbus. “And don’t get me wrong, he’s had his moments. He’s a fiery guy and wants to win just as bad as you do.
“But he’s also one of the best guys I’ve ever known and — a great communicator, checks in on you from time to time, asks how your family’s doing, your kids, how your mom and dad are doing.”
Atkinson said he advocated for Fletcher to bring Tortorella to Philadelphia. “As I get older, I only have so many years left,” the 33-year-old Atkinson said. “And I want to win.”
The work begins now. Tortorella training camps are notorious for being heavy on conditioning. All players were required to come in at 11% body fat or under. And they did.
That helps cater to Tortorella’s style, which requires commitment to structure and details.
“His teams in Columbus weren’t the highest-skilled teams, but their puck possession numbers were top 10 in the league,” Fletcher said. “We want to look like that. If we don’t have enough skill to score as much as other teams, that might be our reality.”
Fletcher revealed something else about Tortorella: “He keeps saying, ‘I’ve changed, I’ve changed.'”
While Tortorella conditioned the players hard in camp, the coach was also checking in with the sports science and newly revamped medical staff, Fletcher said. And there were no more runs, just hard skates.
Tortorella said the biggest way he’s changed is in his approach with younger players.
“I listen more. I do,” he said. “I think you have to with the athlete in today’s world. I think it’s the right way to coach, to empower them. But I can’t let it run away from me, where if I listen too much — human nature is they take advantage of that.
“I’m still going to push them. I’m still going to be hard, be disciplined. But I want them to be part of the equation with me. That’s the biggest thing I’m trying to get better at. Am I rock solid? Absolutely not. But I’m working on it.”
Tortorella doesn’t want his team to be the Broad Street Bullies. But he does think it can have the toughness to give it an identity the city will fall back in love with. It’s just going to take a hard reset to get there.