Five keys to the Flyers being competitive under John Tortorella in 2022-23
The Flyers are not projected to make the playoffs next season, but if they are to surprise and exceed expectations, they will need the following things to happen.
After one of the worst seasons in franchise history in 2021-22, the Flyers are hoping to turn the page and get back to being competitive this season. John Tortorella, a coach with a track record of being a “fixer,” has been brought in to right the ship, but it will take a lot more than a new coach to reverse the Flyers’ fortunes.
Can the Flyers turn it around? With a so-so roster, some major injury question marks, and after an underwhelming summer in free agency, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical.
For the purpose of this article, we’ll take the glass half-full approach, and look at the reasons for optimism.
In that vein, here are five keys to the Flyers rebounding in 2022-23:
1. Buying into Tortorella’s system
This was always going to be No. 1 given Tortorella’s reputation and demanding style. The fiery coach, 64, is not for everyone, but he’s had success in the past in getting players to buy in and battle for him.
The Flyers need to forge an identity in the worst way, and how the players receive their new coach will go a long way in determining if/by how much they will improve this season. Tortorella has won with limited rosters in the past, so his presence is the biggest variable in projecting the Flyers’ outlook in 2022-23.
The early signs are good, as Cam Atkinson, who played for Torts in Columbus, put in a good word for his former coach during the hiring process, while Kevin Hayes and new signings Tony DeAngelo and Nic Deslauriers have voiced their excitement about playing under the former Stanley Cup-winning coach.
It is one thing to buy into Tortorella the person, it is another to buy into his system, which asks a lot of players defensively and requires peak conditioning and commitment to detail.
Last season, the Flyers were woeful defensively, surrendering 3.59 goals against per game, the sixth-worst mark in the league. If they are to move up in the standings, they will need to improve significantly there. This is feasible, given that Tortorella promises to bring much more structure and defensive accountability than predecessors Alain Vigneault and Mike Yeo.
In his five full seasons as coach of the Blue Jackets, Tortorella’s structured approach paid dividends, as Columbus ranked second, 10th, 11th, third, and 25th in his final year, in terms of goals allowed. The Blue Jackets, who were nowhere near the most talented team on paper, qualified for the playoffs in the first four of those seasons.
Expect a more disciplined Flyers team next season, as Tortorella will aim to grind out points with responsible defensive play and timely scoring.
2. Staying healthy down the middle
The Flyers lost more than 500 man-games last season to injury, an almost unfathomable total, with many of them coming to key players like Ryan Ellis, Sean Couturier, and Hayes.
One would think this would even out a bit this season, and while Ellis’ status remains up in the air, a healthy 82 games of Couturier and Hayes would be a significant boost for the Flyers.
The return of Couturier, a 0.91-point-per-game player over his last four full seasons, cannot be overstated. The 2020 Selke Trophy winner missed 53 games last season with a back injury, forcing the Flyers to play without a true No. 1 center for almost the entire year. Couturier’s return should also help the team’s special teams, as he kills penalties and will slide in on the first power-play unit for a team that finished dead last with the extra man last season at 12.6%.
Hayes’ health will also be important after he was limited to 48 games following multiple abdominal surgeries. While his willingness to play through pain has to be commended, he didn’t look anywhere near full strength until the tail end of last season.
Tortorella is looking forward to working with the Boston native, who he believes has “more there” as a second-line center. If he can get Hayes, who carries a $7.14 million salary-cap hit, back to his 2020 production — 23 goals, 41 points in 69 games — it would go a long way in helping the Flyers solidify the middle of the ice.
The Flyers played much of last season without their top two centers and we all saw how that played out. Given the organization’s shortage of depth at that position, it is absolutely imperative that Couturier and Hayes stay healthy and return to top form.
3. Carter Hart taking the next step
Carter Hart had an up-and-down 2021-22 season, as for stretches he was very good, despite his unflattering final season numbers (3.16 goals-against average, .905 save percentage).
In defense of the 24-year-old, he didn’t have much help in front of him from a poor and constantly changing defense. As the season wore on, Hart was often hung out to dry as the team experimented with young players, many of whom were in over their heads at the NHL level.
Hart should be the player who benefits the most from Tortorella’s arrival, as the new coach’s structure should mean more bodies defending the house, fewer pucks getting through to goal, and fewer odd-man rushes.
Tortorella knows the Flyers need to improve in front of their young netminder:
“If we want to go into X’s and O’s, the first thing I want to teach with the coaching staff is to play away from the puck, the play in front of Carter,” Tortorella told The Inquirer in June.
Henrik Lundqvist and Sergei Bobrovsky are two goaltenders who thrived under Tortorella, each winning a Vezina Trophy.
Hart can do it, as he posted a .915 save percentage and 2.59 GAA over his first 74 NHL games, and outdueled the great Carey Price in a playoff series just days after turning 22. That said, he faces a pivotal moment in his development after back-to-back disappointing campaigns. He still has enormous potential and will need to show it this year if the Flyers are to surprise people.
The Flyers also lack an NHL-caliber backup behind Hart, so they will be leaning on him to shoulder a heavy load in 2022-23.
4. Someone scoring 30 goals
While this might not be absolutely essential, it sure would be nice if the Flyers had someone crack the 30-goal plateau.
It has been three seasons since Couturier potted 33 goals in 2018-19. Last season, James van Riemsdyk led the team with 24 goals, 11 of which came in the final 22 games. As a team, the Flyers finished second to last in the league with 210 goals (2.56 per game).
The Flyers need someone to emerge as a goal scorer, with Couturier, Cam Atkinson, Joel Farabee, and Travis Konecny the likeliest candidates to break through.
Atkinson, who had 23 goals last season but cooled off after a hot start, has twice reached 30 goals, while Farabee, who had 20 goals in 55 games in 2021, has the shot and skill to one day join that club.
Konecny might be the wild card, as he has scored 24 goals on three occasions but last year managed just 16. The Flyers want Konecny to shoot the puck more, and being reunited with Couturier on the top line could be just what the doctor ordered for him to rediscover his scoring ways.
The Flyers have to find a way to finish off plays better than the 8.3% they shot as a team last year, the second-worst mark in the NHL. Couturier and Hayes’ playmaking should help create more quality opportunities for the players listed above, including on the power play.
5. Provorov returning to the old Provorov
Two years ago, Ivan Provorov would have been on any short list of the best young defensemen in the game. At the time, he was 23 years old and already had two seasons of huge minutes, 13-plus goals, and 35-plus points. The best was yet to come — so we thought.
Provorov, now 25, has struggled since, failing to emerge as a No. 1 defenseman. Sure, several Flyers have regressed in the last two seasons, but Provorov’s fall from grace has been equally stark and surprising.
Entering last year, the thought was that Provorov just needed a complementary partner like he had with Matt Niskanen. The Flyers went out and got him one in Ellis, but the pairing was short-lived after Ellis played just four games due to a “multilayered” pelvic injury. Ellis’ injury status is no more clear now, and it appears as if Provorov will begin the season with yet another new partner: Tony DeAngelo.
While Provorov and DeAngelo offer plenty of offensive intrigue, there will be valid questions about the pairing defensively. Can Provorov get back to being the up-and-coming, two-way defenseman he was in 2019-20? Tortorella believes so:
“He’s such a competitive guy,” Tortorella told The Inquirer in June. “I think there’s another level to his game. And I want to try to help him get there. And it’ll be a huge piece.”
It is not as if Provorov has forgotten how to play hockey, it is more that his focus has dropped at key times, leading to mistakes so obvious that he has become an easy target for criticism. He is still eating a lot of minutes against top players (24 minutes, 53 seconds in ice time last year), producing a decent return points-wise (31), and according to Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus, he was a net positive, albeit a slight one, in terms of both expected goals and shot differential last season.
The issue is the backbreaking mistakes, the turnovers that lead to odd-man rushes, the failure to mark his opponent in front of the net, etc. It also seems as if one Provorov mistake oftentimes snowballs into a series of them in short order — see the second half of last season when Provorov posted a minus-14 rating after the All-Star break and consistently produced bad defensive lapses on tape.
The 2022-23 season figures to be a make-or-break one for Provorov with the organization. Can the talented Russian defenseman rebound under a new coach and with a new partner? The Flyers are counting on him, as Provorov will likely begin the season as the team’s No. 1 defenseman.