After weeks if not months of courtship, the Philadelphia Flyers and John Tortorella made things official this week with a four-year contract. Tortorella will leave a television gig with ESPN to helm the NHL’s winningest expansion team. The notoriously feisty coach is undoubtedly the most inspiring Flyers hire since Peter Laviolette took the reins. In the interim, future Stanley Cup winner Craig Berube was never given a serious chance with the Flyers, former collegiate coach Dave Hakstol gave the phrase wet blanket new meaning, and league stalwart Alain Vigneault followed up a promising maiden voyage with some truly ugly hockey. Tortorella will take over directly from interim coach Mike Yeo, whose tenure on Broad Street mercifully ended at the end of last season. Still, as exciting as it is to have a known commodity like “Torts” take over on the bench, the wretched upper management of the organization will no doubt put a damper on what should be an exciting new era.
Since Chuck Fletcher came on as general manager, the Flyers have consistently punched above their weight. In his misguided belief that he was taking over a team one or two pieces away from contending, Fletcher brought in Kevin Hayes in free agency and later Ryan Ellis via trade. The oft-injured duo represents a financial albatross on a roster bereft of legitimate star talent. What Tortorella will Fletcher expect, then, given the latter’s history of expecting elite results from mediocre components?
If Fletcher thinks Tortorella will somehow replicate his 2004 Stanley Cup success with Tampa Bay during his current contract, he is simply out of his mind. That Lightning team had mercurial superstar Martin St. Louis, do-it-all captain and one-time Flyer Vincent Lecavelier, and powerplay specialist Brad Richards. This Flyers team has Travis Konecny, Scott Laughton, and the husk of James van Riemsdyk.
If the Flyers’ brass wants Tortorella to replicate his tenure with another franchise, they need look no further than his most recent coaching job in Columbus. In short order, the Bostonian became the Blue Jackets’, whose pre-Tortorella history consists of Rick Nash and ugly uniforms, winningest ever coach. The Jackets made 4 playoff appearances throughout Tortorella’s time with the team, and while they only advanced past the first round once, their immediate return to mediocrity after his departure suggests Tortorella was largely hamstrung by an unambitious organization. The moral of the story is that Tortorella quickly added character and consistency to a scuffling team. With this roster, the Flyers would be lucky for Tortorella to repeat that trick, let alone the deep playoff runs he enjoyed with the Lightning and Rangers.
The conventional wisdom is that the “scary coaches” like Tortorella, Laviolette, or Mike Keenan can get a rise out of underachieving players and quickly raise the morale of their team. That was true of Tortorella in Columbus, where Artemi Panarin became one of the league’s best players, Seth Jones played himself into a ludicrous contract from the Blackhawks, and Nick Foligno became a staple of NHL leadership groups. Good as he is, though, Tortorella is not a miracle worker. No amount of scream-filled intermissions will make Travis Konecny into Artemi Panarin, or better yet jettison the Flyers’ laundry list of terrible contracts.
With time, Tortorella can drastically improve the career trajectories of whichever young players buy into his philosophy and rebuild this team around probable captain Sean Couturier and young sniper Joel Farabee. Four years will not be enough for him to bring the Cup back to Philadelphia, but he can jumpstart the sort of paradigm shift the Orange and Black desperately need. If he is cut short in that pursuit by Fletcher’s delusions of grandeur, do not be surprised when fans again savage the team’s upper management and Comcast’s utterly unsuccessful stewardship of the Flyers.
Photo: Jay LePrete/Associated Press