Can Torts turn it around?
Is John Tortorella really the one to turn the Flyers’ fortunes around long-term?
The Philadelphia Flyers are not used to a rebuild.
Throughout their history, the Flyers organization has always held competitiveness at a premium. Being in the hunt was expected, and missing the playoffs at all was considered a fireable offense for coaches such as Craig Berube, Peter Laviolette, and Ken Hitchcock.
However, since 2012-13, the Flyers have only made it out of the first round once, in the bubble playoffs of 2019-20. The Wells Fargo Center has not hosted a second-round playoff game in over a decade. Times have changed, and the NHL is no longer a place where teams can outspend their problems and still assure themselves at least some playoff success.
Organizations now win championships; teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, and Colorado Avalanche are now the blueprints to success. Creating a culture that amplifies the team’s strengths, drafting well, and managing the salary cap effectively are the keys to success.
The Flyers’ new management structure should be more well equipped to handle these challenges, as long as the newly promised restructuring of the front office actually happens.
But what about the man behind the bench? It was clear that Chuck Fletcher and John Tortorella were never really on the same page, given the fact that Tortorella went out of his way to scratch or bench nearly every player who was extended or acquired by Chuck Fletcher, whether that be Travis Sanheim, Kevin Hayes, or Rasmus Ristolainen.
In hindsight, Fletcher was never going to win that battle between coach and general manager. He had been around for far too long without improving the team to really command any sort of authority over his new coach, and Torts’ personality and commitment to engraining a consistent work ethic endeared himself to the organization and the fanbase.
But now that the management/coaching staff power struggle has ended, that the old guard filled with names like Holmgren, Clarke, and Barber beginning the process of stepping back, John Tortorella is going to play a massive role in defining the next era of Flyers hockey.
And that begs the question, does he really know how to do that?
When examining Tortorella’s head coaching career in depth, you see a pattern.
In his first full season with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2001-02, the team missed the playoffs before making the postseason each of the next four seasons; which included a Stanley Cup in 2003-04, before missing the playoffs and being fired in 2007-08.
In New York with the Rangers, the team missed the playoffs in his first full season in 2009-10, then made the playoffs for the three straight years, with Tortorella being fired after a second round loss in the lockout shortened season of 2012-13. After this was a brief one season stop in Vancouver, where the Canucks missed the playoffs in a tumultuous 2013-14.
Then came his six year stint with Columbus, where the Blue Jackets missed the playoffs in year one, made the playoffs for the four years following, and then missed again in what would be Tortorella’s final year in 2020-21.
What is the pattern here? Well, in every one of his three long term appointments, Tortorella missed the playoffs in his first full season, before following that year with a streak of playoff appearances. After missing the playoffs in year one with Tampa Bay and Columbus, he led both teams to the playoffs the next four years. With New York, it was a three year streak, that only ended because Torts was fired following a second round loss to the Boston Bruins.
Now this is a long career we’re talking about, Tortorella coached his first game as an NHL head coach on April Fools’ Day in 1999, which is not only pretty funny, but also means his head coaching career spans longer than the lifespan of your humble writer.
And in that entire time, John Tortorella has never missed the playoffs in two consecutive with the same team over a full season. He missed the postseason in his first two years with Tampa Bay, but he was hired midseason in year one, taking over when the team was already far below .500.
The Flyers have already clearly stated that they are going to be selling off parts and trying to commit to a complete rebuild, so the probability that they somehow find a way into the playoffs next season is very low. That would mark Tortorella’s first time missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons with one franchise, putting him in a very unfamiliar position.
What John Tortorella is best at is taking a team who is not living up to expectations, energizing them, and getting them to the playoffs. He is not someone who has ever taken a team through a traditional rebuild, or who is primarily known for developing young players.
This is not to say that he is a bad coach, that he should be fired at the end of the season, or anything of the like. But it is fair to ask if Tortorella, a veteran coach who experienced his most success in the early 2000’s, is the best choice for guiding a young team through a full scale teardown.
In his defense, however, Tortorella seems completely realistic about the situation he is in. Even when the Flyers had a good start to the season in 2022, Torts remained firm in the (correct) idea that this was a long term process that needed time. It’s clear that the Flyers head coach knows what he is getting into, but in an NHL landscape that is venturing further and further away from the one that Tortorella once excelled in, are the Flyers right to give him that opportunity?
I guess we’ll have to wait and see.