John Tortorella is a polarizing coach. The Philadelphia Flyers choosing the journeyman bench boss could be described as an experiment, especially considering the Flyers have failed to qualify for the NHL playoffs in two consecutive seasons, finishing eighth in the Metropolitan Division last year, and Tortorella’s recent record isn’t exemplary.
Tortorella’s methodology once worked in the NHL, but since 2013-2014, Tortorella’s teams have advanced beyond the opening round of the playoffs only once, advancing only as far as a second round loss to the Boston Bruins in 2018-19.
In a 2019 article in The Athletic, Tortorella’s “volatile, confrontational style” was criticized by former players who claimed he “chastised players in the middle of the dressing room or even on the bench during games, and there were times the confrontations were uncomfortable. They left the rink angry with him on occasion, and they often disagreed with his coaching decisions and/or his approach.”
In his six seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets, that discomfort culminated in an ugly conflict with star Pierre-Luc Dubois who was later traded to Winnipeg. “Have Luc and I had conflict? Goddamn right we've had conflict," Tortorella said. “If someone doesn't want to be here, that's a hard thing for me to stomach, quite honestly. I'll tell you this, I do think the athletes (today), it's a softer athlete. And the benching; I'd do it again."
Flash forward to today, and another conflict appears to be brewing in the Flyers organization involving Tortorella and star players Travis Konecny and Kevin Hayes. The coach held true to his promise, benching Philadelphia’s top two scorers for the third period of Sunday’s game while the Flyers trailed the San Jose Sharks 2-0.
Konecny took accountability for the benching, telling media, “I wasn’t playing good enough” after he was on the ice for both of San Jose’s goals.
Tortorella’s preseason and past promises, however, likely played a role in the decision as well. "I'm not convincing them," Tortorella said of the Flyers prior to the season. "I'm going to tell them what we're looking for, we're going to push to that level, and if some guys aren't willing to get there, or maybe there's some stubbornness about getting there, we'll look to someone else."
In the case of Konecny, that could involve a trade out of town. It’s not the first time Konecny has been criticized or benched by a Flyers coach, as he was scratched last season by then head coach Alain Vigneault, who was fired midseason. Konecny went on to finish the year as Philadelphia’s leading scorer with 52 points in 79 games. Throughout the season, however, Konecny was rumoured to be a trade target, and with his relationship with the enigmatic Tororella already seemingly in disrepair, it’s likely Konecny’s name will resurface in trade talks again, especially if the Flyers enter a losing stretch. The team’s third leading scorer, James van Riemsdyk, is another likely trade target this season, as the 33-year-old is slated to become an unrestricted free agent following this campaign. Couple this with the fact the Flyers are without a captain, and the team’s veteran core appears to be in turmoil.
When asked about the benching of Hayes and Konecny, Tortorella told reporters he was going to “keep it in the room.” It’s the same room, however, Tortorella claimed he had “major concerns” with prior to the season. Losing the support of his top two scorers might create another divide, similar to what existed in Columbus with Dubois, that only a trade could mend. It will be a situation general manager Chuck Fletcher, who signed Konecny and Hayes to six- and seven-year contracts respectively, will need to monitor, and at some point, he may be forced to decide - does he keep the players he signed or his newly hired coach?
If “major concerns” do exist within Philadelphia’s locker, it will be of interest to watch who Tortorella aligns with. Earlier this year, Tortorella touted and defended problematic blueliner Tony DeAngelo, saying, “Tony DeAngelo has personality. Is he going to say and do some stupid stuff? You're damn right he is. But I'd rather have a guy doing stupid stuff than having a choir boy here just going about your business. You don't win that way, you don't win championships, you don't build a team without any personality. Tony's going to bring that and, plus, he's a hell of a player.”
That “personality” involved alleged mistreatment of Black teammate K’Andre Miller, and a physical altercation with goaltender Alexander Georgiev, resulting in the New York Rangers ending DeAngelo’s contract in 2021. DeAngelo was also suspended multiple times in the OHL for racism.
Meanwhile, the “choir boys” Hayes and Konecny, will look to rebound when the Flyers take on the Florida Panthers on Thursday. Philadelphia currently sits with a winning record through the opening weeks of the season, but the conditions appear right for a tumultuous future on the bench, and behind it.
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