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Tortorella has destroyed ‘wrong fit’ narrative for rebuilding Flyers

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Philadelphia Flyers, John Tortorella
John Tortorella, at a press conference, next to the Flyers' President of Hockey Operations, Keith Jones. (Photo: AP)

After the Philadelphia Flyers’ latest win – Saturday night against the Detroit Red Wings – John Tortorella snuck into the locker room and went straight for Sam Ersson. “F–kin’ outstanding! F–kin’ outstanding! Enjoy the day off tomorrow,” Tortorella told his goalie. The Flyers had just moved up to 11th place in the NHL.

Eleventh place in the NHL? Aren’t the Flyers rebuilding? Tortorella was supposed to be a terrible fit for a young, rebuilding Philadelphia team. And yet, in the 2023-24 season, the exact opposite has been true. Where did this narrative around ‘Torts’ start, anyway?

Humble Beginnings

During his head coaching career, John Tortorella has developed a reputation for being a demanding coach with an explosive personality. This is true about him, but it’s not because he enjoys being strict without rhyme or reason. The 65-year-old wants to do one thing: win.

Tortorella hasn’t always been able to win, though. Every team he’s ever coached missed the playoffs in his first full season coaching that team. That includes the Tampa Bay Lightning, with whom he inherited 20-year-olds Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier, and a 25-year-old Martin St. Louis.

After three full years of Tortorella, the Lightning went from 27-40-11-4 to 46-22-8-6, and won the Stanley Cup in the 2003-04 season. St. Louis won the Art Ross Trophy, the Lester B. Pearson Trophy, and the Hart Trophy that season, scoring a then-franchise record 94 points as part of the league’s third-best scoring offense. Richards won the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Lady Byng Trophy that season, as well.

Under Tortorella, Lecavalier scored 52 goals 56 assists, and 108 points in 2006-07, which gave him the Lightning’s franchise scoring record until that Nikita Kucherov guy came around. That season, Lecavalier won the Maurice Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal-scorer. Richards also scored a career-high 91 points that year.

So, who said Tortorella only plays defensive hockey, and isn’t good for young players?

More recently…

If that wasn’t enough, let’s take a look at a more recent body of work from the Philadelphia Flyers’ head coach.

Tortorella joined the Columbus Blue Jackets for the 2015-16 season, and had the opportunity to coach a 21-year-old Seth Jones, a 26-year-old (and current Flyers winger) Cam Atkinson, a 22-year-old Boone Jenner, a 19-year-old Zach Werenski, a 19-year-old Pierre-Luc Dubois, and a 22-year-old Alex Wennberg during his time there. The common denominator? All of these players had their best all-around seasons under Tortorella.

Jenner scored a career-high 30 goals and 49 points in his first season with Tortorella, and hasn’t reached either mark since. Atkinson scored 30 goals 40 goals, and 60 points for the first and only times of his career under the Flyers bench boss, as well. Wennberg scored 59 points in the 2016-17 season, and hasn’t cracked 40 since then.

Werenski received his only Norris Trophy votes during that time, and the same is true of Jones. Both defensemen regressed in their own end after Tortorella’s departure. One player who has improved since Tortorella’s arrival, and will vouch for his coaching: current Flyers defenseman, Rasmus Ristolainen.

“I wish I had him when I was 18 and coming in the league,” Ristolainen said of his coach after the Flyers’ win Saturday night. “It’s been fun working with him, and I feel like I’ve taken some big steps under him.”

“Just killing plays, playing better in D-zone, have tighter gaps, be more involved, and skate,” were some of those steps, Ristolainen explained.

With Travis Sanheim out for the Flyers against the Red Wings, it was Ristolainen who jumped up from the third defense pairing to the first. 22-year-old Cam York – his defense partner who played a team-high 23:13 – scored the decisive goal in the 1-0 victory.

Tortorella was at it again, mixing and matching a tightly-knit locker room on the ice, spurring the Flyers on to yet another victory in a close game.

Big picture for the Flyers

Morgan Frost is still producing at about a 40-point pace, as is Bobby Brink. Both were healthy scratches for multiple games earlier in the season. In fact, it was Brink’s goofing around in practice with Ersson that bought the Flyers a shootout win against the Washington Capitals.

Tyson Foerster, despite the lack of scoring luck, is fourth amongst Flyers forwards in average ice time. Travis Konecny, Joel Farabee, and Owen Tippett are the Flyers’ only double-digit goal-scorers so far. Cam York, who was in the AHL just last year, is second only to Travis Sanheim in average ice time on the Flyers. Then there’s Rasmus Ristolainen, who, at the age of 29, is playing the best all-around hockey of his career, because that’s how John Tortorella taught him.

And as a team, the Philadelphia Flyers are playing with such tact and discipline that they are brimming with confidence, even in high-pressure games like the one on Saturday. Carter Hart feeds on that and Ersson feeds on that, and that then goes back into the team. Now, Tortorella has two goaltenders he can trust to go out on the ice and get a result for the team.

Whatever narrative there was about John Tortorella and young players – it’s gone. Kaput. The Flyers are where they are because of the work Tortorella has done with the stars of tomorrow. Any other explanation simply fails to capture the big picture. It’s time to give credit where credit is due.

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