John Tortorella has once again succeeded Alain Vigneault after agreeing to terms on a four-year, $16 million contract with the Flyers to be their head coach.
The Boston native, who also replaced Vigneault in Vancouver in 2013, has coached four NHL teams — the Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers, Canucks and Columbus Blue Jackets — over 20 seasons. Throughout his career, he has made waves for his many successes, including winning the 2004 Stanley Cup with the Lightning, as well as his many controversial moments with players, fans, and media.
Tortorella last coached with the Blue Jackets in 2020-21 and spent this past season at ESPN as an analyst.
He is passionate, tough, brutally honest, and hardworking, and expects his players to be as well, which would seem to suit Philly’s blue-collar mentality. Having worked in high-pressure markets like New York and Vancouver, he also has shown he can handle the media and a demanding fan base.
With 673 career wins and a Stanley Cup ring, Tortorella brings a track record of success and a clear identity to a franchise that has had neither in some time. But will he fit on more than the surface level? After the Flyers limped to a 25-46-11 record in 2021-22, the second-worst in franchise history, Tortorella has a gargantuan task on his hands.
Here’s a look at the pros and cons of the Flyers hiring him as their head coach:
Why Tortorella is a good fit
As a Stanley Cup champ and two-time Jack Adams Award winner as the NHL’s coach of the year (2004, 2017), Tortorella takes over a Flyers team that has missed the playoffs in three of the last four years and hasn’t won a Cup since 1975. He has experience overseeing a longer rebuild in Tampa, as well as turning a team around quickly as he did in Columbus. Depending on whether last season was a fluke because of injuries, or more likely, a good indication of where the franchise stands, the Flyers might have a need for both of those skills.
Tortorella’s style fits the physical identity that the Flyers say they want to get back to after they lacked any semblance of an identity last season. His teams are known for being aggressive and hard to play against. The Flyers recently backed up their desire to become a more physical team when they extended the contract of defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen.
Another trademark of Tortorella’s teams is disciplined team defense. For a Flyers team that gave up 3.59 goals a game, the sixth-highest total in the league, more defensive commitment, including from the forwards, is critical. Finishing checks, aggressive forechecking, and blocking shots are other hallmarks of Tortorella-coached teams.
General manager Chuck Fletcher admitted that the Flyers need to play more with the puck on their sticks at his end-of-season press conference.
“We were defending all the time and that is something we have to look at,” Fletcher said.
Tortorella’s system calls for relentless forechecking, which if executed, would help the Flyers from the standpoint of winning the puck back and establishing offensive zone time.
In the locker room, he holds his players accountable, even his stars, and demands a lot from players. He is considered tough but fair and is regarded as a master motivator who knows how to push the right buttons and get the most out of his teams. Despite the media perception of him, he is beloved by many players.
Former Flyers and current Ottawa Senators defenseman Michael Del Zotto, who played under Tortorella in New York and Columbus, praised his former coach’s directness.
“The thing with Torts, you know where you stand with him,” Del Zotto said in 2021. “He’s brutally honest. If you can take it, if you have thick skin, there’s no other coach you’d rather play for. ... He would do anything for his players.”
Several Flyers have mentioned the need for a change in the locker room. While the players have a good bond off the ice and did not point fingers during the team’s struggles last season, it got to the point where they weren’t holding one another to a high enough standard.
“We did a good job — not a good job, a decent job — at sticking together through the worst times, and we all have to hold each other accountable,” Cam Atkinson said during exit interviews. “We need to find a way to stick together and build that winning culture.”
Unprovoked, Atkinson mentioned that he learned what it takes to win from Tortorella, for whom he played six seasons in Columbus.
Why Tortorella isn’t a good fit
For many of the same reasons Tortorella is a fit for the Flyers, he also could prove to be a major misstep. While players like Atkinson thrived under Tortorella’s tough love, others have been known to butt heads with him. Over time, Tortorella’s demands tend to wear down players both physically and mentally. Florida Panthers sniper Anthony Duclair and Winnipeg Jets star Patrik Laine are two recent examples of highly skilled players who struggled to stay out of Tortorella’s doghouse.
Tortorella even clashed with players this season as an analyst. In December, he controversially shared his disapproval of Anaheim Ducks forward Trevor Zegras’ “showman” antics on air after Zegras’ lacrosse-style assist for a “Michigan goal.”
He questioned whether that type of play, which drew more than 50 million video views and was one of the highlights of the season, was “good for the game.” Tortorella eventually tried to clarify his comments but stood firm in his belief that it wasn’t a “hockey play.”
With such an old-school, strict, defensive coach at the helm, it’s reasonable to question whether young, skilled players like Morgan Frost, Owen Tippett, and Joel Farabee will develop under Tortorella. Due to his reputation, it is also fair to wonder if elite free agents will be interested in signing with the Flyers. Tortorella’s opinions about the direction of hockey, which he hasn’t been shy about sharing, might also show a bit of disconnect between him and the modern game.
Tortorella’s style also takes a toll physically on teams. As much as the Flyers would like to play the tough style he’s known for, the roster isn’t currently built for that. The Flyers are a smaller team — at the end of the season, they had six skaters who were 6-foot and under, as well as 11 players who weighed less than 200 pounds.
Then there are the injury concerns, especially considering what Sean Couturier, Ryan Ellis, and Kevin Hayes went through last season. Is having aging veterans, post-surgery, playing such a high-tempo, demanding style of play really going to work?
Maybe the biggest potential problem with the Flyers’ decision to hire Tortorella is that it projects as a win-now statement, despite the last two seasons making it clear that the team is not currently built to contend for a Stanley Cup. The Flyers’ best player, Couturier, is coming off back surgery, and their top two scorers, Atkinson and Travis Konecny, both barely cracked the 50-point mark. Atkinson (2017, 2019) and Konecny (2020) are also the only players on the roster to have made an All-Star team.
Some of the Flyers’ key issues last year go back to that lack of talent rather than to coaching. The team’s power play finished dead last at 12.6%, another indictment of the group’s lack of high-end offensive players. When the Flyers did manage to create scoring chances, they didn’t convert them — they shot just 8%, which ranked 31st out of 32 teams. The Flyers will aim to address that in the offseason, but given their salary-cap constraints, Tortorella may not have much flexibility to upgrade or shape the roster in his image.
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Is gambling for a year or two of a slight uptick and contending for a wild-card spot the right move? The Flyers have made this mistake before and it has only compounded their problems.
Time will tell if Tortorella is the long-term solution or just another Band-Aid to temporarily cover up the organization’s longstanding issues.