VOORHESS, N.J. – It’s more than just a bit ironic that Cam Atkinson and John Tortorella will be starting this Flyers season in Columbus because that’s where the player-coach collaboration did some of its finest work.
Let’s put it this way: The Jackets have been in existence 22 years and have made the Stanley Cup playoffs just six times. Tortorella and Atkinson were together in Ohio’s capital for four of those.
It only took Tortorella one season to turn things around in Columbus. By year two, they were in postseason play. Can a similar scenario play out in Philadelphia?
Tortorella arrived last season but Atkinson missed all of that due to major back surgery. But now the player is healthy and eager to work for his old boss again.
At 33, Atkinson still doesn’t appear to have lost a step and should be ready to get back to his usual strong performances.
The question now is: If the Flyers are in a rebuild mode and trying to break in a bunch of new, young players, where does that leave the compete level and the very outside chance of qualifying for the playoffs?
Atkinson and the rest of the Flyers aren’t sure how to answer that other than to say they’re going to go out there on 82 separate nights and win as many as they can.
“I think it’s just in the nature of our business that we’re going to be competitive every single night,” Atkinson said after Wednesday’s practice at the Flyers Training Center in preparation for Thursday night’s curtain riser. “That’s the standard around here.
“It doesn’t matter who is in our lineup, we have to go out there and do our job. We’re not here to lose games; we’re here to win as many games as possible, win a Stanley Cup and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
The Flyers did a lot of roster adjustments during the offseason and not all of them were tied in directly to what was happening on the ice. It looks and sounds like a much more harmonious locker room in Tortorella’s second year with the departures of Kevin Hayes, Ivan Provorov and Tony DeAngelo.
“It’s a great group now,” Atkinson said. “It’s amazing what a year can do – bring in some new energy. Then you have some older guys, some good guys (new additions Marc Staal and Garnet Hathaway, for example). They know how to play the game the right way, good pros, good teammates.
“So, the energy around here is really positive.”
Having everyone on the same page can make a big difference. It certainly makes it easier on the coaching staff.
“Ultimately you want guys who buy into what we’re trying to do,” Atkinson said. “So far we have a really good squad, especially in the locker room. Now we have to go execute on the ice.”
Although he won’t have a letter sewn on the chest of his jersey (that privilege only goes to alternate captain Scott Laughton), Atkinson is set to embrace a major leadership role – something of which the team is in short supply.
“Yeah, I take a lot of pride in being a leader,” Atkinson said. “Whether you wear a letter on your jersey or not, I try to lead by example with my work ethic. I try to drag guys into the fight that way.
“As long as I’m working hard and doing the right things, usually the offensive side comes and drags guys into the fight.”
Also returning from nearly two years of injury down time is Sean Couturier. He agrees with Atkinson that a together group can perform much more efficiently than a 20 players/20 taxi cabs arrangement.
“It feels fresh, a lot of new guys,” Couturier said. “We’re trying to come together and build something special here. We’re younger but the guys are buying into what the organization wants. Younger, older, we just have to build it together.”
Players such as Atkinson and Couturier can serve almost as assistant coaches, showing the younger guys right from wrong.
“We’re a team that’s young but we can’t be a team that’s afraid to make mistakes,” Couturier said. “We have to try to make some plays. We can live with the mistakes as long as we learn from them. If we get better and better, we’ll be hard to play against.
“As an older guy (30) like myself, it’s fun to see some younger guys kind of grow into some good leaders. It’s fun to see the growth in guys like ‘TK’ (Travis Konecny) and ‘Sanny’ (Travis Sanheim) – off the ice, taking steps toward being good leaders. I think everyone can grow into a leader and I think that’s what ‘Torts’ (Tortorella) is looking for.”
As for Tortorella, it sounds like progress might be the key word. Get younger but also remain competitive, just as it was with the Blue Jackets nearly a decade ago.
“There’s not the feeling out process,” Tortorella said. “This coaching staff is pretty straightahead how we go about business. What we expect the standard to be. And I think they’re more comfortable with it.
“They understand how we practice, what we want out of practice. All the things that come with going through a season. It’s going to be smoother.”
Maybe the Flyers will surprise some people when 2023 become 2024. Who knows? Rookie forwards Bobby Brink and Tyson Foerster could turn out to be legitimate NHL performers. First-year defensemen Emil Andrae and Egor Zamula might stick on defense. And young goalies Samuel Ersson and Felix Sandstrom appear to have bright futures.
“As you go into camp and add a few new bodies. . .I’ve liked (training) camp,” Tortorella said. “They’ve been very business-like but they’ve also had some fun. The games can’t start any quicker.”