After several days of rumors and hearsay, John Tortorella is now officially the head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers announced the hiring Friday morning.
“I am very happy to bring in John to be the next head coach and voice behind the bench of the Flyers,” said Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher in a release. “John demands the best out of his players every single game. He is a Stanley Cup champion and has a lengthy track record of both regular season and playoff success. During the interview process we discussed a number of factors that are crucial to bring this team immediate success and it became clear to me that his vision and style makes him the right person to restore a winning environment to our locker room.”
Hours after the hiring was officially announced, Tortorella met with the media for the first time as head coach of the Flyers. There’s a lot to unpack from Tortorella’s first media availability, so we broke down the key highlights below.
Tortorella has been interested in coaching the Flyers for years
Torts has seen a lot of the Flyers since first breaking into the NHL. After all, he’s spent parts of 12 seasons coaching division rivals of the Flyers between the New York Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets. But from afar, Torts has always admired the franchise and its culture.
“Back in ‘04, when we were fortunate enough — I was coaching Tampa — and we went through Philly to win a Stanley Cup, beating Philly in the conference finals, I remember telling my wife, and I told Chuck this story, “Man, that is a place I would love an opportunity to be and coach,” said Tortorella. “The passion of the people, the building, everything about the city, it really — it was really neat for me.
“I remember in my first meeting with Chuck, when we started this, he wore a shirt with the emblem, and I said, “Man, that’s where I want to be.”
Throughout his media availability, Tortorella was visibly elated about joining the Flyers. And for him, it was apparently a long time coming.
It makes sense, too. Tortorella has a lot in common with the City of Brotherly Love. He’s an outspoken, hard-nosed coach who’s never been afraid to voice his opinions to anyone. In Philadelphia, he should fit right in.
Tortorella is demanding, and that was one of his most attractive qualities
The Flyers were very thorough in their head coaching search, and they had a fair amount of candidates to choose from. But Tortorella stood out amongst the pack, and he fit the mold the Flyers were looking for in their new bench boss to a tee.
Fletcher read a list of qualities the Flyers ideally wanted their next head coach to possess — experience coaching in the NHL, a track record of success, the ability to implement defensive structure and, of course, “the proven ability to hold players accountable to a high standard.”
If there’s one thing that’s plagued the Flyers in recent seasons, it’s been the team’s overall lack of accountability. With Torts in town, that is going to change immediately. He’s made a career of being a direct, demanding coach, and Fletcher believes Torts is the right person to implement that type of dynamic in the locker room.
“I think deep down, there are a lot of demanding coaches in the NHL,” said Fletcher. “Ultimately, players will respond if they know you’re demanding, but you’re demanding in a sense that you care about them. You want what’s best for them. You’re not being demanding for yourself, you’re being demanding to make the player better, to make the team better. And nobody personifies that more than John Tortorella.”
Predictably, structure is very much a huge focus for Tortorella
This has become one of Tortorella’s calling cards as a head coach, and it’s something the Flyers desperately need. Flyers defenders were caught out of position far too often this season, and that lack of structure in the defensive zone resulted in some miserably embarrassing goals against.
Like this one, for example:
Yeah. Not good. But hopefully that won’t happen again for a while.
For better or for worse, Tortorella is going to put a massive amount of focus into stiffening up the Flyers’ play in the D-zone. Yes, the Flyers have a ton of areas that need improvement, but the defensive play that was exhibited all season long is far and away the most glaring issue.
“You need structure. I think one of the most important attributes of a head coach is to find and teach the structure away from the puck, and I work at that,” said Tortorella.
“I kind of get coined as that defensive guy. You can coin me any way you want, you can say what you want about me. That’s a huge part of winning. As you see in the playoffs right now, as you listen to some of the players talking about it in the playoffs right now, it’s a huge part of being who you want to be, and I think it really develops a standard of being a hard team to play against.”
Defense comes first, but not at the expense of offense
Tortorella has never been known as an offensive guy. He admitted as much in his presser. But he’s also not the type of defensive coach who’s going to force a Travis Konecny-type player to become a Selke finalist. At least not anymore.
That’s something that became an issue during his time in Columbus. Blue Jackets forward Patrik Laine felt he had no “freedom” in the offensive zone under Tortorella, and his production suffered because of it.
Now, though, it appears Torts has learned to give players a little more leash so long as they put in some semblance of genuine effort away from the puck.
“I think you have to get out of the way. I do think we over-coach at times. It’s something that I try to check myself daily as I’m dealing with the players, especially in the offensive part of the game.
“I don’t have the ability or the sight that offensive people have or the creativity that they have. I need to allow them to play. But it’s gonna be a two-way street. It needs to be a two-way street. Just show me that you’re willing to give us something away from the puck — not gonna turn you into a checker — but you’ve gotta show me, and more importantly show your teammates, that you’re willing to do some of the other stuff as an offensive guy away from the puck, then you have something. And I think that’s what develops the right camaraderie of a hockey club.”
Carter Hart is going to greatly benefit from the new system
The Flyers had too many problems to count this season, but the below average goaltending was more a symptom of the problem than the problem itself.
Carter Hart’s numbers (3.16 GAA, .905 SV%) may look ugly, but he was one of the main reasons why the Flyers won as many games as they did. Look no further than his remarkable 40-save performance against the Carolina Hurricanes in November as evidence.
Hart might not be the eventual Vezina candidate many were hoping he’d be when he was a teenager, but he’s still a very good goalie who’s had the misfortune of playing on a team with absolutely no defensive structure.
That won’t be the case much longer.
“I do believe the first thing as far as on-ice that I need to attack is the play away from the puck,” said Tortorella. “I think we need to give Carter a little bit more support as far as how we play around him. Allow him to really get himself into the National Hockey League. He’s 23 — 23 as a goalie. And I’m not gonna give any criticisms to his prior play, but this is how you go about it.”
The Flyers aren’t going to be a punching bag anymore
In order to play better defense and, in turn, make life easier for Hart, structure and discipline are going to be key for Tortorella’s Flyers.
But that’s not limited just to their play on the ice.
Too many times this season, the Flyers were defeated before they even entered the arena. They’d begin a game looking sluggish, and as soon as they allowed a single goal, everything came crumbling down. That attitude cursed them throughout the year, and Tortorella is well aware of it.
“Bottom line is, I want the team to be hard. 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.’”
The days of the Flyers being run over night in and night out are over — at least that’s Tortorella’s hope. The 10 or 11-game losing streaks won’t fly anymore. They won’t be a perfect club, but they’ll certainly be more resilient under their new head honcho.
“We’ve got to grow some skin,” Torts said.
Torts’ relationship with Cam Atkinson wasn’t always smooth sailing
Asked how the camaraderie in the locker room can positively impact the outcome of the 2022-23 season during his end-of-season presser, Cam Atkinson unpromptedly echoed a lesson he learned from Tortorella during his time in Columbus.
“It was a crazy year where we played so many games and I felt like we didn’t really have a lot of practices, especially with the Olympics, and whether the Olympics were going to happen, that’s why there were so many games in such a short period of time.
“I think it all starts with practice. You practice how you play, and that’s — especially when I turned pro, I learned that from John Tortorella. He was great in that aspect. There just wasn’t a lot of practice times, and it was hard to really kind of mold and gel as a group when you’re playing so many games because you can watch video and stuff but you can’t really get on the ice and do it.”
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows between the two of them, though.
“When I first got (to Columbus) Cam was being sat out. I’m not sure what happened,” said Tortorella. “Cam was stubborn. And I like his stubbornness. I think players of that quality of what he has to do in the size that he is, and what he has to do as a player in the National Hockey League and be a top-notch player like he is, you gotta have that stubbornness.
“We went back and forth and it took us a while, because I asked for more.”
Atkinson and Tortorella may have butt heads a time or two in Columbus, but it sure doesn’t seem like that’s impacted Atkinson’s positive view of his head coach — especially considering his reaction to the hiring on Twitter.
There’s “more there” in Kevin Hayes
According to Torts, Kevin Hayes was one of the first players he called after being named head coach of the Flyers. Both he and Hayes are natives of Boston, but they don’t know each other very well personally.
As a player, though, Tortorella knows a whole lot about Hayes, and he thinks he can get more out of him.
“I’m really interested in talking to Kevin. I think Kevin is one that I’m anxious to work with because I think there’s more there. I think he’s a huge piece to the puzzle up the middle of the ice for this organization.”
Hayes is coming off an extremely difficult season. He tragically lost his older brother Jimmy last August and missed a significant chunk of the season due to injuries. But after returning to the lineup in March, Hayes looked focused and rejuvenated. Arguably no player on the Flyers roster was performing at a higher level than Hayes in the season’s homestretch, and if he can continue playing at that level, he and Sean Couturier could form quite a dynamic duo of top-six centers.
“I hear he’s a tremendous guy. I want to try to help him, because if I can help him and make him understand that we’re gonna try to get him to another level, what does he do for the Flyers organization up the middle of the ice? I’ve watched him from afar, and there’s more there. And it’s my responsibility to try to get that out of him.”
Temper your expectations
Yes, John Tortorella has a Stanley Cup title on his resume. Does that mean the Flyers are bound to compete for a title right out of the gate?
Absolutely not. And Tortorella admitted it upfront.
“I’m not gonna sit here and say that we’re gonna be Stanley Cup contenders next year. I get that. I know there’s some work to do,” said Tortorella. “But having said that, I know there’s some work to do. That’s what I want to do. That’s what coaches do. I’m looking forward to the challenge, and as I started with my research on Chuck and as we’ve grown a little bit here, getting to know one another, I’m really interested to do it with him.”
Torts will work with Fletcher on roster moves
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Any rational general manager will take input from their head coach into consideration when constructing their team. It won’t be any different with the tandem of Fletcher and Tortorella.
“John, like every coach I’ve worked with, it’s a collaborative process,” said Fletcher. “I think it’s really important to get their vision on the type of roster they want to coach. Ultimately it’s my decision, but every manager takes into account how a coach wants to have the roster, the ideal composition of your bottom six or whatever it may be, so clearly there’s gonna be a lot of communication as we build this together, but we’re gonna still aggressively look at every way to get better.”