We should have seen this one coming.
One quick look at John Tortorella’s coaching resume would have shown us he almost always likes to get a good look at his players when he joins a new organization before getting down to the serious business of winning.
It started in Tampa Bay back in the early 2000s when he took a couple years to learn which of his players were all in. Eventually he found the right mix and won a Stanley Cup in 2004 with that crew.
There were similar experiences with the New York Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets. After a couple seasons he led the Blueshirts to the Eastern Conference finals in 2011-12 and then, later, needed only one season out of postseason play to end up guiding the Ohio guys to four straight appearances in the playoffs, this after the Jackets had made the postseason only twice since their inception in 2000.
That brings us to the Flyers and the arrival of Tortorella last season.
He didn’t promise any miracles and there weren’t any. The Flyers missed the playoffs for a third straight season, the second-longest drought in franchise history.
But the time wasn’t wasted. Tortorella, who at 65 admits this is probably his last coaching gig, spent the year sort of like he did in Tampa Bay, looking to find out who wanted to be here and who didn’t.
At the same time, he said the much touted “rebuild” might take a couple years or maybe more than that. For his second season in Philadelphia he said he wanted to stick to the plan and not worry too much about the won-loss record.
Well, it’s early in this season, barely a quarter of the way through and surprise, surprise – as of today, the Flyers find themselves somehow sitting in second place in the Metropolitan Division with a 15-10-2 mark.
It appears professor, er, coach Tortorella still has it when it comes to teaching his players the right way to go about their business.
Followers of the team really shouldn’t be taken aback by how fast things have turned around. We knew veterans Sean Couturier and Cam Atkinson were coming back from a year off (in Couturier’s case, a year and a half) due to injury, so right away the team defense got better.
Even though veteran defensemen Ivan Provorov and Tony DeAngelo were sent packing, second-year man Cam York has stepped up, veteran Travis Sanheim has shot to the top of the NHL defenseman scoring list and seasoned backliners such as Sean Walker, Rasmus Ristolainen and Marc Staal have steadied the ship.
From this vantage point, Tortorella has done a great job with the development of rookie forwards Tyson Foerster and Bobby Brink, plus backup goaltender Samuel Ersson.
Not many of those paid prognosticators had the Flyers penciled in for the playoffs but after watching the Flyers secure wins over some of the NHL’s top teams, including Vegas, Carolina, Vancouver and Los Angeles, the legion of believers is starting to grow.
There are plenty of reasons to speculate the Flyers are ahead of schedule in their possible return to contention. Their penalty kill, such an important part of today’s game, has improved leaps and bounds over last season. They already lead the NHL in shorthanded goals with seven.
After finishing a rather sad minus-55 in goals differential last season, the Flyers entered weekend action at plus-7. Somebody is doing some backchecking.
Also, the Flyers have been among the leaders in shots and on the road, they put a streak together of at least 10 games in which they allowed an opponent three or fewer goals. No wonder they now have a sparkling 9-4-1 record away from the Wells Fargo Center.
There are more than 50 games left to play this season and anything can happen. Yet judging by the way Tortorella’s squad has played so far, a better-than-expected outcome is certainly possible.
Give much of the credit to Tortorella. If a postseason appearance is in the cards, it would simply be another gold star on the coach’s certain-to-be Hockey Hall of Fame resume.