Wednesday, May 22 2024

‘A long ways to go,’ accountability and more in takeaways on Tortorella, Briere originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

VOORHEES, N.J. — A little over two weeks ago, John Tortorella, sitting at the same press conference table, fervently pleaded for his rebuilding Flyers to face the moment.

His team was scuffling and teetering the brink of squandering a surprise postseason push.

On Friday, a day before the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Tortorella and his general manager were facing the media and discussing the Flyers’ 2023-24 season being finished.

Tortorella’s club would eventually stabilize but not before the damage was done. The Flyers lost nine of their last 11 games (2-7-2) and were eliminated on the final day of their regular season. The slide started around mid-February as the Flyers dropped 19 of their last 28 games (9-14-5), a stretch in which they won consecutive games only once.

Now the Flyers have another important offseason ahead of them, the club’s second under GM Danny Briere and president of hockey operations Keith Jones. The franchise has missed the playoffs in four consecutive years.

“I’m a little frustrated that I couldn’t get the team to close the deal, that’s what we wanted to do,” Tortorella said Friday. “It was a concern of mine 25 games left or so in the season, can we stay with it? I think it’s my job to get it to the end. I think the team played hard right until the end. I just did not close the deal. Was the messaging right at certain times?

“There are a lot of things that run through my mind as a coach when you’re that close and then you don’t get there. So that’s something I’ve got to evaluate over the summer.”

Tortorella and Briere held separate end-of-the-season press conference Friday. Let’s get into our five takeaways:

1. ‘I am totally in until …’

It was fair to question Tortorella’s future as the Flyers’ head coach when the team had a season-worst eight-game losing streak at the worst possible time. Especially when that skid was punctuated by a 9-3 eyesore to the Canadiens, the worst loss in Tortorella’s two years behind the Flyers’ bench.

But, in the grand scheme, the Flyers had overachieved significantly up to that point, they answered their coach’s call after that game and played a meaningful regular-season finale.

Briere backed his veteran coach Friday.

“Torts is fantastic to work with,” the 46-year-old GM said. “We have a great relationship, it was easy to talk to him, he’s very open as far as taking suggestions. It was a blast.

“I would always say, I provide the roster, but Torts is in charge of who plays, who’s in and out of the lineup and how much ice time they get. But he was very open. If we saw something, there was never any push back.”

Tortorella turns 66 years old in June, but his everyday drive to still do what he does had been evident down the stretch. And he seemed to quash any speculation about him potentially taking on a different role with the Flyers.

“I am as energized as I’ve ever been,” Tortorella said. “This team here, the organization, I love working here. I’m already thinking about next year. I just spent an hour with Danny, we just spent a half hour with Patrick Sharp and some of our analytics guys on certain players that we think we can help. I am totally in until Danny says get the hell out of here.”

While Tortorella had no problem holding himself accountable Friday, he did not regret calling out his team after a 4-3 overtime loss to the Islanders to open April. He ripped into his players for a “soft” and “embarrassing” second period. The Flyers lost their next three games by a combined score of 19-7 as the losing streak ballooned to eight.

“I don’t take one word back from that, I do not take anything back from that,” Tortorella said. “It wasn’t a complicated situation, it wasn’t X’s and O’s, it wasn’t style of play, it was how hard you have to be. I wanted our guys to understand — and still do — that there’s a whole different level of hardness that comes with this as you start getting better as an organization.

“You’ve got the wrong coach here then if we’re going to be hugging and [saying], ‘We’re here guys, you played a lousy period and a half there, but it’s OK.’ You’re not getting that from me. Ever.”

John Tortorella, Danny BriereJohn Tortorella, Danny Briere

John Tortorella, Danny Briere

2. What’s the next step?

Before this season, the Flyers publicly embraced a rebuild and had an offseason that backed it up.

For about four and a half months, the rebuild looked expedited. The Flyers held down third place of the Metropolitan Division for over two months before falling into the eight-game spiral. They finished the season with 13 wins over top-10 teams and they saw promising contributions from a number of young players.

Maybe their timeline is coming into focus.

“It’s one of those questions where it’s not black and white like maybe it was last summer,” Briere said.

But the Flyers made it clear they’re staying patient. They have two first-round selections in the June 28-29 NHL entry draft. When free agency opens July 1, they probably won’t be doling out big contracts.

“I’m still not quite there as far as saying that we’re a contender,” Briere said. “I don’t believe we’re at the point where it’s time to let some young assets go to try to get better quicker. We’re not there yet. But there are certainly a lot of players that have brought some optimism as far as believing that we’re going in the right direction. So we have to be careful.

“I know the expectation next year will be that, ‘Oh, we’ve got to get into the playoffs.’ I don’t even know that we’re there yet. It was a great year, but there’s still a long ways to go.”

Tortorella has been upfront about the Flyers’ long road to contention from when he was hired in June 2022. He wanted his team to experience the playoffs this season, but has not lost sight of the Flyers’ plan.

“Just to play a few,” Tortorella said. “I don’t think we do a whole bunch in it, but we get an opportunity. … We’re staying with the process or it turns into a team just spinning its wheels in the mud again.”

The Flyers didn’t disregard their future around the March 8 trade deadline. Despite their defensive depth starting to become thin, they still moved Sean Walker in a package that netted them a conditional 2025 first-round pick.

The club missed Walker, though, going 6-10-3 and surrendering 3.95 goals per game without him.

“What we did at the deadline was right,” Tortorella said. “This is where you get stuck in the mud. We are a ways away. We have so much work to do with this team. There are holes in the team, it’s going to take more time and I’m telling you that right now.”

More: Signs of change? Atkinson has ‘a lot of juice left’ for ‘the right situation’

3. ‘That falls on me’

After the Flyers “worked their ass off” learning how to defend last season, Tortorella wanted to incorporate more offense in Year 2. He pushed the Flyers to take risks this season and was pleasantly surprised how well it worked. The Flyers were stretching the ice and scoring in transition.

However, as the games tightened down the stretch, Tortorella felt he didn’t help the Flyers adjust their approach. Since March 1, over the last month and a half of the season, the Flyers scored the NHL’s third-fewest goals per game at 2.36.

“When you get to the last quarter or so, things change, that neutral zone shuts down,” Tortorella said. “That’s where I think — and it falls on my shoulders — you can’t play the same style all the time. We needed to add a little bit more forechecking. We have grind on our team. We weren’t, won’t and didn’t get pushed around, but we needed to develop more offense within the zone and the grind of it.

“That falls on me, that we needed to get more then at the end of the year because the game changes. … I don’t think we spent enough time on that part of it.”

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4. The plan in net

The Flyers had the NHL’s third-largest shot differential, outshooting opponents by 483 shots. Only the Hurricanes (plus-632) and Panthers (plus-485) had better marks.

Even in their eight-game losing streak, the Flyers outshot their opponent in every loss (plus-87 differential). They struggled to score and really needed more saves.

On the season, the Flyers were tied with the Senators for the league’s worst save percentage at .884. They played five goalies and finished the season riding two rookies: Samuel Ersson, a 24-year-old who played far more than anyone expected, and Ivan Fedotov, a 27-year-old who arrived only three weeks ago.

Briere had no update on Carter Hart, who has been on an indefinite leave of absence since Jan. 23 because of the Hockey Canada sexual assault case. The trial reportedly won’t begin until after the start of the 2024-25 season.

“Nothing new on Carter,” Briere said. “We haven’t received any direction.”

As of now, the Flyers are planning to have Ersson and Fedotov make up their tandem to open next season.

“Something could change, especially with the history of this organization with goaltending,” Briere joked. “It seems there’s always some drama there, but it would be nice to get away from the drama.”

Ersson, a big reason why the Flyers had a chance at the playoffs, appeared in 51 games and 32 of the team’s last 38. Before finishing strong over his last three outings, he was pulled four times in his previous 12 starts. He had worn down.

“Sam Ersson was thrown in a really tough situation this year, I’ve been really impressed with him, the way he handled it,” Briere said. “He started challenging Carter for starts, which was amazing to see. He wasn’t stealing the starts and it’s not because Carter was playing bad; he just earned them.

“After that, it was a really tough situation for him, to lose his partner and to have to play almost every other night. … I know down the stretch it got a little difficult and maybe he got overplayed, but overall it was an impressive season for a young goaltender.”

Prospect Alexei Kolosov could be knocking on the door at some point next season. The 2021 third-round draft pick recently joined AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley after recording a 2.39 goals-against average and .907 save percentage in the KHL this season for Dinamo Minsk.

Last summer, the Flyers drafted goalies Carson Bjarnason in the second round and Egor Zavragin in the third.

“We do have, in the back, some good, young goalies that are getting better and turning themselves into high-end prospects,” Briere said. “I think the goaltending is looking good for many years to come.”

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5. Collaboration on power play

The Flyers were plagued all season by their league-worst power play (12.2 percent).

The club’s issues on the man advantage have preceded assistant coach Rocky Thompson, who was in his second season overseeing the units. The season prior to his arrival, the Flyers had an NHL-worst 12.6 power play percentage.

While some of it has to be personnel-related, the Flyers know it can’t all fall on that.

“It cannot be as bad as it was this year with the people we had,” Tortorella said. “So we have to look at ourselves with this here.”

The head coach defended Thompson but noted that the organization wants to be more collaborative this offseason in trying to improve the power play. The Flyers want to tap into the minds of special advisors Patrick Sharp and John LeClair, as well as pro scout Dany Heatley, among others.

“I think we need to have a discussion on our power play, but Rocky Thompson is one hell of a coach,” Tortorella said. “He’s so frustrated, as the players are, as we all are, with our power play. And I’ve got a general manager that was one of the best power play guys in the game. So we’re going to sit as an organization with those people and just discuss it this summer. I think it’s a point of emphasis for us, our power play. I think our 3-on-3 play is a point of emphasis and I think our 4-on-4 play has to be.”

The Flyers went 4-8 in 3-on-3 overtime and were outscored 5-2 when play was at 4-on-4 this season.

“I think I made a mistake this year on our 3-on-3 and our 4-on-4 that we did not practice it enough,” Tortorella said. “It’s sometimes hard to practice [those areas] because you’ve got other things going on and sometimes that just may be a couple of minutes of the game, but I think it’s so important. I think I failed the team this year that we did not do enough work on that.”

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Source: Yahoo Sports

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