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Meltzer's Musings: On Trotz and Torts

June 12, 2022, 11:20 AM ET [103 Comments]
Bill Meltzer
Philadelphia Flyers Blogger •NHL.com • RSSArchiveCONTACT
It is believed that the Flyers have reached the end-game stage of the process of hiring a new head coach. Unsurprisingly, Barry Trotz and John Tortorella are both said to be among the finalists for the position. It's been speculated that if Trotz does not choose the Flyers among the various teams courting his services, the job will go to Tortorella.

There are conflicting reports on whether the Flyers ever did an in-person interview with former Dallas Stars coach and Flyers alum Jim Montgomery during the process. According to Frank Seravalli, Montgomery was one of the interviewees. However, Elliotte Friedman said on the 32 Thoughts podcast, that the Flyers elected not to interview "Monty." In either case, it does not seem as if Montgomery made it to the short-list of candidates; possibly because of semi-recency of the personal problems that led to his dismissal in Dallas.

Among other candidates, it appears that the Flyers had one conversation with Bruce Cassidy, who was recently dismissed by the Boston Bruins. However, it is not believed that Cassidy had a formal in-person interview.

According to one of the candidates -- a non-finalist -- the Flyers interviewed for the HC vacancy, the hockey people in the room when he interviewed were Chuck Fletcher, Brent Flahr and Danny Briere. The organization's senior advisors were not part of the interview. That does not mean, of course, that their opinions and advice on candidates have not been solicited but theirs is a background role in the ultimate decision.

While Trotz is almost universally considered an elite NHL head coach, it's not like Tortorella is a second-rate choice. He's the second-winningest American coach in NHL history, trailing only Peter Laviolette. Despite Tortorella's hard-driving coaching style and sometimes irascible persona, it is worth noting that 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 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 few of Tortorella's former players have come out to say they hated having him as their coach. Quite the opposite actually. Although Tortorella pushes his players hard and will not hesitate to reprimand or bench any one of his players for straying from what the veteran bench boss considers the non-negotiable expectations -- back-checking, hustle, putting team objectives above personal goals, etc. -- his players consider the expectations to be both fair and consistent.

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 the sort of accountability that he believes is needed to a higher degree on the current Philadelphia team.

It's also been rumored and echoed by one of the long-list candidates whom the Flyers interviewed, that senior advisor Bob Clarke is in favor of the organization hiring Tortorella. Although none among Clarke, Paul Holmgren, Bill Barber or Dean Lombardi have decision-making power or day-to-day hockey operations involvement with the current Flyers, that does not mean their respective opinions carry no weight. Clarke in particular has a close bond with Chuck Fletcher.

The 63-year-old Tortorella is a complicated person. He has a temper, although it's mellowed to some degree over the years. His relationship with the media, in a professional context, has been testy at times (especially during the playoff) and, in a couple of instances, borderline hostile. He's been described in the media as everything from "a bully boss" to overly inflexible and "the worst possible coach for offensive-minded young players".

Tortorella is unabashedly and unapologetically old-school in his hockey beliefs. He despises anything he considers to be showboating or perceives as an individual putting himself above the team. Stars and role players alike are expected to help out in the defensive zone. Paying the price to block shots is a must. On the flip side, he has typically run an aggressive 2-1-2 forecheck and swarming the puck; which also plays into his insistence on universal buy-in to backchecking when the opposition gets the puck.

Tortorella has long been a critic of morning skates on game days. He tries to minimize them. On the flip side, as Atkinson has mentioned, Tortorella places major importance on getting the maximum from practice days and believes that teams ultimately play how they practice. Atkinson has said that Tortorella runs the best practices of any coach he's played for to date.

When it comes to the player-coach relationship, it's Tortorella's way, the bench or the press box. While not every player thrives under such an approach, Tortorella is much like the late Pat Burns in how most of his players view him with respect. He does not play mind games or attack players on a personal level as a motivation tactic; something that separates Tortorella from "Iron" Mike Keenan at his worst. For example, Keenan felt that it was a legitimate motivation button to push to repeatedly tell a rookie Scott Mellanby that he'd been raised a soft, spoiled kid by well-off parents and then dared him to prove otherwise on the ice.

There's also another side to Tortorella from the guy who pushes players, works the officials from behind the bench and can be surly or even taunting to reporters.

On a day-to-day basis, he can be very generous with his time and insightful about the game. People who know Tortorella say that he's very caring about his players and their families as human beings. It also extends beyond players. The late Jay Greenberg told me that, of all the coaches he ever covered, Torts was the only one who ever called him when Jay was between jobs.

Before Jay came back to the Flyers at Ed Snider's request to write "Flyers at 50," his long tenure with the New York Post came to an end after 17 years. A few days after Jay was let go by the Post, Tortorella phoned Jay just to see how he was doing and to say hang in there. That simple act of kindness and compassion was something that I know Jay appreciated for the rest of his life.

As a coach, Tortorella is known for working well with his staff. Mike Sullivan, who was Tortorella's assistant in Tampa, New York and Vancouver, later went on to win back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Penguins and is considered one of the NHL's top head coaches to this day, considers Tortorella to be the finest mentor he's worked with in his own career. Having been an assistant coach himself with Buffalo and the Coyotes as well as with Team USA (2004 World Cup of Hockey), Tortorella understands that a coaching staff needs as much cohesion as the players on the ice.

Broader context and humanity are valuable in understanding the bigger picture with Tortorella. There are many reasons why the two-time Jack Adams Award winner (2003-04 and 2016-17) and one-time Stanley Cup (2003-04) winner has lasted in the NHL as an assistant or head coach since 1989-90. The immediate question from a Flyers perspective is not whether Tortorella has the qualifications and know-how to get the team to improve in year one and build onward. Rather, the question is where Tortorella -- in lieu of Barry Trotz accepting an offer to coach the Flyers -- is the RIGHT hire for the team given it's current situation.

I don't know if I'd call Tortorella the perfect fit for the Flyers but I also don't know that anyone else -- even Trotz, who will turn 60 on July 15 -- would check off every possible box. I do think he'd immediately help lower the Flyers' goals against average and reduce some of the Jekyll-and-Hyde period-to-period rollercoasters that have plagued the team. But Alain Vigneault also accomplished that in Year 1 of his tenure (the Flyers ranked in the top 8 leaguewide both in GAA and GPG in 2019-20) and then things fell apart again rapidly thereafter.

Regardless of the coaching hire, the Flyers have a lot of on-ice areas of need to address and precious little cap space to do it with. A Jack Adams-caliber coaching season in 2022-23 from whomever the next head coach is would certainly be a big help but, at some point, the Flyers need to improve the existing roster and get more from the holdovers for more than just a short period of time. It's going to be a massive job.
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