Things will get better is a familiar refrain whenever adversity appears, no matter what the sport.
In hockey, in particular the Flyers’ case, the idea of improving a dire situation without waving a magic wand or blowing up a salary cap had all the makings of a challenging one.
Enter John Tortorella.
Like his style or not, the head coach made no bones about it from day one he was going to do things his way. Namely, find out who would go all in on his approach to a strong, committed fundamental brand of sticks and pucks.
As the team begins to approach the halfway point of its season (Game 41 is on Jan. 11), the numbers don’t really tell the story.
Heading into the final game of the 2022 calendar, the Flyers had but a dozen wins to show for their efforts in the 2022-23 season.
Yet if you dig a little deeper into those statistics, you will see that the Flyers have been improving in some intangible areas, such as keeping games close, fighting back from deficits and holding high-powered offenses somewhat in check.
Thursday night’s game against the San Jose Sharks was a good example.
Down 3-1 early in the third period, Philadelphia got a goal from Owen Tippett to tighten the score, then picked up a tying goal from Travis Konecny with just over two minutes left in regulation time.
It took only 70 seconds in OT for the Flyers to secure the win on a goal by Tony DeAngelo.
A quick glance at this season’s results sheet shows the Flyers have already beaten Tampa Bay, Colorado, New Jersey and the Islanders, while sustaining close overtime defeats to Carolina, the Rangers, Washington and Vegas.
All along, Tortorella insisted this reconstruction wasn’t going to be a short, easy process. In fact, he predicted it would take “not months but years.’’
Well, it’s been less than a year and already there are signs of a rejuvenated roster.
Konecny is enjoying a career year and should be a shoo-in for the NHL All-Star Game at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, Fla. on Feb. 4. Tippett missed five games with a concussion but still has reached double-digits in goals (11). Morgan Frost has already scored a career-high six goals and defenseman Cam York has come into his own since returning from the Phantoms a few weeks ago.
Ex-Flyer Keith Jones, hockey analyst for the Flyers on NBC Sports/Philadelphia and the TNT Network, subscribes to the approach Tortorella is taking.
“The biggest difference is the trust, that accountability is going to be there,’’ Jones said in a telephone conversation from Los Angeles where the Flyers play Saturday afternoon. “From player 1 to player 25 of the roster.
“I think it’s really showing in the way that the team has competed this year. They have not been a team that’s laid down, not been on the wrong side of many lopsided scores because they know they’re going to be held accountable if they’re not competing.’’
That’s an element which might have been missing from the Flyers’ attitude the past few years.
“It’s not necessarily that the personnel has changed dramatically but there are players getting prime time opportunities that are younger and are going to be the future of the team,’’ Jones said, “if they have shown enough; that they have the qualities that the head coach wants in a player. And a willingness that they’re going to go out there and do what he’s asking them to do. They can be part of the turnaround.’’
To his credit, Tortorella has only let his frustration and emotions show a couple times, perhaps the most noteworthy occasion after a 5-2 loss at Columbus on Nov. 10 when he blew off a post-game press conference.
And, in fairness, this was his return to a city in which he had coached for a half-dozen seasons so who knows all the circumstances involved.
After most of these close, tough defeats, Tortorella has basically told his players to stick with the program and eventually the results will follow.
Maybe that will be the case as the second half of the season progresses. The Flyers might not make the playoffs but they could be a pain in the butt to play against.
“I think as players you recognize when a coach is passing along knowledge to you as far as the style of play or playing properly,’’ Jones said. “And you’re being rewarded for following direction.
“It’s showing that you’re willing to learn and that you are coachable. And that what he’s teaching you is translating into positives that – No. 1, give you opportunity and No. 2, it’s throughout the lineup. . .it’s consistent from player to player what is being asked and what is being recognized.’’
That’s why it’s so important to get it right the first time with prospects such as Noah Cates and Wade Allison.
“It’s one thing to ask, it’s another to make sure you hold the player to that high standard that you’re trying to set,’’ said Jones. “There will be no shortcuts with John Tortorella behind the bench.’’
Buying into a coach’s system has a ripple effect in the locker room. Players seem to be on the same page, working for a common cause and that can go a long way in today’s NHL.
“They’re not pointing fingers at any points in games,’’ Jones noted. “They’re all doing it together. It’s pretty cool to watch, to gel together as a team. I think that’s one of the most important aspects of Torts’ coaching, whether it’s behind the bench or on the ice during practice.
“It’s about building together. As the organization adds more talent (draft, trade, free agency) and he sorts through his eyes the ones you want to keep, I think you’re going to see a real transition in the organization. It looks like there’s some direction, especially from where he’s standing.’’