Considering his seemingly-always-simmering feistiness, you could argue it was only a matter of time before John Tortorella became head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. In a way, it almost seems too obvious.
But is it actually a good idea? From a blogging/grab the popcorn perspective, it’s great. The Flyers’ history cements the idea that what’s good for bloggers can be quite the opposite for the team.
There are a lot of layers to peel back.
Before we dive in, let’s roll out a confession. It’s tough to judge any NHL head coach. As a spurned journalist would say to Rangers-era John Tortorella, you’re sometimes forced to speculate.
John Tortorella after one week with these Philadelphia reporters. pic.twitter.com/NSRp0Nxckf
— TLY (@TheLibertyYell) June 15, 2022
Myths, ‘culture’ and more: one can only guess if Torts’ approach works with players
How successful has John Tortorella been as a head coach?
Much like Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher, you can at least tip your cap to Torts for finding ways to land and keep jobs. With 1,383 regular-season NHL games coached, John Tortorella ranks 13th all-time. He’s three games behind Mike Keenan for 12th in NHL history. Amusingly, two other recent Flyers head coaches (Alain Vigneault and Peter Laviolette) are right there behind him.
Does John Tortorella really worthy of a fifth shot as an NHL head coach? That hinges on how you gauge a coach.
One camp might view Torts as someone who gets the most out of his teams. In a great recent piece for The Athletic, Charlie O’Connor noted that John Tortorella found ways to keep limited Rangers and Blue Jackets rosters competitive at 5-on-5.
Yet, you can also run into a chicken-and-the-egg problem here.
What if the coach of that underdog team plays some role in that team being underdogs in the first place?
Torts since he won the Cup in 03/04
6 first round exits
5 missed playoffs
3 lost in 2nd round
1 lost in 3rd round
11 of 15 years didn't get out to or out the 1st round.
— FlyersPuckSauce (@FlyersPuckSauce) June 15, 2022
That’s one key area where things get murky. If your coach runs stars out of town, does he deserve credit for getting more from less? Naturally, Torts had an answer for that.
“To me, it’s a myth,” Tortorella said. “I feel very confident if you talk to some of the players that people think I ran out, I’m very confident you’d have an interesting answer to your question.”
It sure seems like actions will speak louder than words.
[Looking back at Torts benching Pierre-Luc Dubois and Patrik Laine]
Sure, players from Pierre-Luc Dubois to Sergei Bobrovsky noted their “appreciation” for Tortorella’s “honesty.”
(Even with those comments, it carries the vibes of Bill Burr’s bit about people struggling to find anything nice to say about an angry person beyond “they sure paid their bills on time.”)
And, yes, the Flyers have at least one strong Tortorella proponent in Cam Atkinson.
— Cam Atkinson (@CamAtkinson89) June 17, 2022
While former Torts player Brandon Dubinsky ranked among the few to vocally share their disdain.
🙏🏻 for the @NHLFlyers players!
— Brandon Dubinsky (@BDubi17) June 17, 2022
All due respect to a still-effective Cam Atkinson, but the key will be if Tortorella ends up being a talent repellent. That could happen through trades and free agency.
One can blame Columbus as a market for the exodus of big-name Blue Jackets players. Yet, at a gut level, is there a sense that Torts’ presence didn’t help? Philly ultimately has to hope that it’s indeed a “myth.”
Look at their roster, and ask yourself: how many players stand out as likely “Torts guys?”
At a glance, it seems like there might not be that many. That’s especially true in the uncomfortably plausible scenario where a hard-working, quality defenseman like Ryan Ellis may not be healthy for some time. For every Sean Couturier who could at least plausibly appeal to Tortorella, there are worries that other Flyers players might not get optimized. It’s hard to shake the impression that the Flyers will ignore my advice not to trade Travis (Sanheim or Konecny), for instance.
Pandering with the usual ‘bully’ bluster
Depending upon your preferences, John Tortorella’s press conference was heavy on the sort of stuff you lap up, or you might find yourself rolling your eyes.
Yes, the Flyers organization is obsessed with bringing back more of its “Broad Street Bullies” image. This quote still made me chuckle, though, personally.
“Bottom line is, I want the team to be hard,” Tortorella said. “I think we need to present ourselves, look harder coming off the bus, coming into buildings. I want other teams to say, ‘You know what, we’ve got our hands full tonight.'”
Better structure is the most promising thing Torts may bring to Flyers
Yet, elsewhere in his press conference, Torts evoked some of his evolution as a head coach. In particular, Tortorella spoke about instilling a structure for the Flyers.
There’s evidence that Torts can, indeed, pull that off. Broadly, John Tortorella did some of his best work early on with the Blue Jackets.
That included a 2016-17 season when he won the Jack Adams. Ponder these Hockey Viz heat charts to get an idea of his strong work. Or, consider that the Blue Jackets ranked sixth in goals for that season (249) and allowed the second-fewest (195).
Now, eventually things dried up. That balance slid until the Blue Jackets were a fairly one-dimensional defensive team hoping for big goalie performances. By the end, not a whole lot went right.
In the grand scheme of things, the Flyers want to get back on track. Combine better health luck and even a temporary boost from a coaching change, and maybe they’re at least a playoff bubble team.
Playing the hits?
Candidly, it would be refreshing if the Flyers pushed harder to try to parallel the innovations of a team like the Avalanche.
Instead, it feels like Chuck Fletcher and the Flyers organization is, in some ways, chasing the past. Consider Vigneault’s former coaching staff, with included other retreads in Mike Yeo and Michel Therrien.
Even the pattern of the Flyers hiring Torts feels a bit like a rehash. The Rangers, Canucks, and now Flyers have all brought in both Vigneault and Tortorella over the years. It’s tough to shake the feeling that we’re watching warmed-over sequels with diminishing returns.
If they were thinking bigger, maybe you’d truly embrace a rebuild, and hope you catch fire like the Rangers. This approach seems more likely to compare to Fletcher’s Wild run, where the team settled for the middle.
But, hey, you know what? Sequels tend to make money. Maybe John Tortorella will get the Flyers to Fly Harder, and that will be enough. We’ve seen worse movies before.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.