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Instant Analysis: Flyers name Tortorella head coach

The Philadelphia Flyers officially confirmed today that veteran bench boss John Tortorella has been hired as a team's head coach.

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer /

The Philadelphia Flyers officially confirmed today that veteran bench boss John Tortorella has been hired as a team's head coach. Only time will tell whether "Torts", who will turn 64 on June 24, will prove to be best available hire among the extensive list of available head coach candidates this offseason.

What is certain is that Tortorella -- the second winningest American-born head coach in NHL history behind only former Flyers coach Peter Laviolette -- will bring his signature hard-pushing style to Philadelphia with an emphasis on player accountability. 

One of Tortorella's staunchest advocates in the organization is Flyers veteran winger Cam Atkinson. Both on Exit Day and in one-on-one interview with Jason Myrtetus on Flyers Daily, Atkinson needed no prompting to talk up Torts as the coach who has the strongest positive influence on his NHL career and instills a hard-nosed competitiveness that the player believes is needed to a higher degree on the current Philadelphia team.

"I think it all starts with practice. You practice how you play. Especially when I turned pro, I learned that from John Tortorella. He was great in that aspect. There just wasn't a lot of practice times. It was hard to mold and gel as a group when you're playing so many games because you can watch video. You can't really get on the ice and do it. I think going into next year, we need to find a way to have some more grit, some more jam, more 'F you' to our game, on both sides of the puck, in our crease, defending our goalie and in their crease. I thought we were a pretty soft team this year in my opinion," Atkinson said.

"It's not just going out there and fighting, I don't have a single NHL fight but I score a lot of my goals in the hard areas. I go back to when we played Chicago at home, and it felt like a playoff game because we were sticking up for each other, getting into scrums, protecting our goalie and getting in front of their goalie. It's as simple as that. It shows your teammates that you're going to stick up for each other. You can just feel the excitement too not only on the bench but in the arena. Something like that really brings a team together."

From a systems standpoint, Tortorella typically employs an aggressive 2-1-2 forecheck in the offensive zone -- a style to requires teamwide willingness to backcheck because it risks opposing odd-man rushes as the flip side to creating turnovers. In the defensive zone, Tortorella stresses shot-blocking and taking away the middle of the ice. 

Although some critics has said that Tortorella's hard-pushing style makes him prone to having a short shelf-life in terms of getting buy-in from his players, it is worth noting that he's had lengthy tenures by contemporary NHL standards in all but one organization.  

He had a seven-season head coaching stint with the Tampa Bay Lightning, five seasons with the New York Rangers and six seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Only Tortorella's unsuccessful one-season tenure with the Vancouver Canucks would be classified as him reflecting the "short shelf life" that some of his critics say is one the main drawbacks to hiring him.

It is also notable that relatively few of Tortorella's former players have come out to say they hated having him as their coach. While there are some outliers such as Sean Avery, the consensus view among players who've played for Tortorella is that the respected him and came away as better players for it.

 Tortorella pushes his players hard. He will not hesitate to reprimand or bench any one of his players for straying from non-negotiable expectations -- back-checking, hustle, put team objectives above personal goals, etc. However, most of his players consider the expectations to be both fair and consistent.  

Importantly, Tortorella keeps player criticisms, however vehement, on a professional level and does not make it personal. He also cares about his players as human beings. This has been one of the keys to why the coach has had longevity with most of the teams he's coached. 

"He's exactly what the Flyers need. Brings an Immediate identity and he'll eliminate all gray areas in the organization, On and off the ice for the players, trainers, staff. Perfect place at a perfect time to bring him in, in my opinion," said longtime Blue Jackets broadcaster and Flyers alum Jody Shelley.

Tortorella's lifetime coaching record is quite similar to those of two former Flyers head coaches: "Iron" Mike Keenan and the late Pat Quinn. Quinn, a Hockey Hall of Famer, never won the Stanley Cup as a head coach, while Tortorella (2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning) and Keenan (1993-94 New York Rangers) won it once apiece.

Quinn: 1,400 GC, 684 CW, .556 PTS%
Keenan: 1,386 GC, 672 CW, .551 PTS%
Tortorella: 1,383 GC, 673 CW, .548 PTS%

Much has been made recently of the fact that only one of Tortorella's New York Rangers teams (2008-09 to 2012-13) went as far as the Eastern Conference Final during a five-season period in which the team was regarded as a Stanley Cup contender in each of the final three years. In a six-year stint with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team lost twice in the first round, twice got to the second round and then missed the playoffs in his final year.

Historical context is helpful. The 2012 New Jersey Devils caught fire at just the right time of year, beating Florida in the first round, upsetting Laviolette's favored Flyers (fresh off a first-round conquest of Cup favorite Pittsburgh in the first round) in five games in Round 2 and then recovering from an 0-2 series deficit to upset Tortorella's Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final. The clinching game was decided in overtime.

In order to get to the Conference Final, the Rangers survived back-to-back wars of seven-game series against Ottawa and Washington. The club seemed to wear down as the playoffs progressed and Peter DeBoer's Devils found ways to play with leads against a Rangers club that was virtually automatic when leading but struggled when forced to chase games.

The 2012-13 season was shortened by a lockout to 48 games. The Penguins ran away with the division, and the second-place Rangers drew the Capitals in the first round. The Blueshirts again prevailed in a seven-game series before going out in five to Claude Julien's Boston Bruins. 

As for Tortorella's years in Columbus, the Blue Jackets almost perennially entered seasons as a projected wildcard or bubble team. They were never considered a top contender in most preseason predictions. 

Columbus missed the playoffs in 2015-16, posted 108 points (third place in the Metro) in 2016-17 before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Penguins in five games in the first round. In 2017-18, the Blue Jackets finished fourth in the Metro with 97 points (one point behind the Flyers) before losing in six games in the first round to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Capitals. Four of the games went overtime, with Columbus winning two and losing two.

In 2018-19, the Blue Jackets staked down the lower wildcard seed in the Eastern Conference. The 98-point team drew Tampa Bay, the runaway President's Trophy winner (128 points), in the first round of the playoffs. Correspondingly Columbus entered the series as a massive underdog.

The Blue Jackets staged a comeback 4-3 win in Game 1 of the series. For whatever reason, the Lightning came unglued as the Blue Jackets earned a 5-1 blowout win in Game 2. After Columbus gritted out a 3-1 victory in Game 3, they completed a shocking sweep of the Lightning with a 7-3 shellacking in Game 4.

Although the Blue Jackets lost in six games to Bruce Cassidy's Bruins in the second round of the 2019 playoffs, the sweep of Tampa arguably stands as the team's top accomplishment during the Tortorella years.

In the 2019 offseason, the Blue Jackets lost both their top forward (Artemi Panarin) and two-time Vezina Trophy goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to unrestricted free agency. Nonetheless, even before the pandemic hit and the NHL expanded the playoff format after the cancelation of the rest of the regular season, Columbus was in playoff position at the time of the pause.

When the playoffs began in the Bubble in Toronto, Columbus knocked out the favored Toronto Maple Leafs in the best-of-five qualification round. In the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, the eventual Cup champion Lightning gained some revenge for 2019 by defeating Columbus in five games (including two overtime victories). 

In Tortorella's final season with Columbus, the 56-game 2020-21 campaign, the team went 18-26-12 and missed the playoffs. Tortorella's contract was not renewed. He spent the 2021-22 season as a broadcaster before being hired by the Flyers to return behind the bench.

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