Much of the Flyers’ recent end-of-season banter had to do with player accountability and head coach John Tortorella’s ability to get that message across to his team.
For the most part, it looked like a majority of the roster took this instruction to heart.
Yet, the mission might have been easier and perhaps more efficient if there had been one more noteworthy name in action.
The all-purpose right wing had played the better part of six seasons under Tortorella with the Columbus Blue Jackets and the relationship was reportedly quite strong.
When Tortorella was hired to take over the Flyers, the feeling was Atkinson, who came over from the Jackets a couple years ago in the Jake Voracek trade, would be the perfect liaison between the bench boss and the players.
Those plans were scuttled, however, when Atkinson had to undergo surgery to repair a herniated disc in the C6-C7 area of his neck. Season over.
Well, by the time the Flyers get to training camp/2023, Atkinson figures to be at or close to one hundred percent.
And the same hope will be back in place – namely that Atkinson can help serve as sort of an “assistant coach” and make Tortorella’s demands a bit more palatable.
In fact, even though Atkinson couldn’t play this past season, he did his best to act as a go-between and make the transition to a new coach a bit easier. Conversely, he would counsel Tortorella on how the players were reacting to the coach’s methods. That role should continue when he returns to the ice.
“There’s no secret that ‘Torts’ and I have a really good relationship,” Atkinson said at an exit day press conference last week. “We talked a lot before he got hired, when he got hired and and just through the process of getting injured, getting surgery and kind of being a sound board for the players to the coaching staff.
“I was that this year as much as I could without obviously being in the locker room 24/7. Just picking each other’s brains on players, what’s going on with certain players and just trying to help out.”
Atkinson’s presence becomes even more essential given the nature of the Flyers’ rebuild, which includes a bunch of youthful players who are trying to get a foothold in the NHL.
Given the fiery nature of Atkinson’s playing style and the way he has performed for Tortorella in the past, it won’t take a whole lot of videotape to get the ideas across.
“He (Tortorella) expects a lot out of me, and like I expect a lot out of myself,” Atkinson said. “Just being a leader for the young guys and leading the way in how you practice, trying to bring the guys into the fight that way and practice how you want to play.
“It was definitely tough not being a part of it but he knows what to expect out of me. I’m looking forward to just being a leader for this group, this organization. Scoring goals and winning games, getting back to building that culture that Philly knows we’re capable of doing and getting back to the playoffs. Obviously, hopefully, one day winning a Stanley Cup.”
Atkinson’s first year with the Flyers was a rather successful one. His 23 goals, 27 assists and 50 points were all second on the team and he probably would have finished first in all three categories if not for missing nine games due to injury.
He’s only 33 years old and should have a number of good seasons ahead of him provided the surgery completely corrected the injury situation with his neck.
The Connecticut native looks forward to getting back to a lineup which could have a returning Sean Couturier and some young hotshots such as Morgan Frost, Noah Cates and possibly Tyson Foerster from the Phantoms.
Atkinson already sees the progress Tortorella has made with the Flyers’ overall mindset.
“It’s pretty obvious how hard the guys worked this year,” Atkinson said. “For the most part, we weren’t out of the games and every guy to literally the end of regulation fought to the very end.
“That’s a great sign. That’s what happened in Columbus, where we went through the process of evaluating players for the first couple years and seeing who’s part of the problem, who’s part of the solution.”
Eventually the Blue Jackets got to the playoffs and started making some noise.
“(It’s) everyone kind of building toward that one goal and working together as a whole organization,” Atkinson said. “Not just the players but from management to the coaching staff to the equipment guys, the trainers and then just being a tight-knit group of that family atmosphere.
“I think he (Tortorella) has done a really solid job and being very honest with each player. As a player, me personally, I know it’s probably not for everyone but I appreciate that and know where I stand with him.”
In a way, it might be a little like being in the military. At the start, it kind of feels like boot camp but after a while, everyone gets the hang of it and realizes every action is taken for the greater good.
“It’s not always rainbows and butterflies,” Atkinson said. “Him and I have gotten into plenty of (expletive) matches and I’m sure we’re going to get into a lot next year.
“I embrace it. I appreciate the fact he’s trying to look out for the best of his players. Even though the players might not think so in certain situations. . .he wants the best and he’s going to do whatever it takes to push you to your limits.”