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For sports fans, October can be the most wonderful time of the year. The NFL season is in full swing. The road to the World Series is underway. And the NBA and NHL are right around the corner.
In Philadelphia, it’s been especially wonderful lately, almost unusually wonderful. The Eagles are 5-0 and the lone remaining undefeated team in the NFL. The Phillies completed a weekend sweep in the Wild Card round in St. Louis and currently have a 1-0 series lead in the NLDS against Atlanta. The Sixers, set to start in less than a week, carry the potential of a deep postseason run. Even the Philadelphia Union in the MLS just claimed the top seed in the Eastern Conference ahead of the playoffs.
And then there’s the Flyers.
The Flyers season gets started on Thursday night. But with so much excitement surrounding the other sports in the city, it almost doesn’t feel that way.
An underwhelming offseason certainly aided in that. After months of preaching an aggressive retool, the Flyers instead relied on the hope that players would return from injury and help the team turn things around. That idea faded quickly when Joel Farabee had offseason disk replacement surgery, Sean Couturier suffered another back injury, and Ryan Ellis never improved and will miss another season. More injuries piled up during an intense training camp that is the trademark of John Tortorella.
Part of the reason that expectations and anticipation feel like they are at an all-time low also has to do with Tortorella. The Flyers brought in Tortorella with the assumption that he could turn a team around quickly. They want to establish a standard and identity. Tortorella is known for bringing accountability to a locker room. Tortorella is also known to get the most out of his players when, on paper, the expectations may not be all that high.
But Tortorella is also as honest and transparent as any coach in the league. And he’s not sugarcoating things. He makes no predictions about outcomes. You won’t hear the word playoffs from him. That’s not how he thinks. In Tortorella’s mind, if you put the right pieces in place and establish the standard and identity, many of the other things will come together and result in success.
That’s where Tortorella’s honesty comes in. He doesn’t see it yet. He sees a lot of room for improvement. He has concerns about where the team is today. In other words, this is a season of building blocks to the standard that Tortorella wants to establish, and he’s not going to cut corners on the process. If someone isn’t living up to what he expects, he’s going to make it known.
That has been refreshing to see, since accountability was a huge issue in recent seasons. But it also serves as a reality check for where the Flyers are. Tortorella has had the time to work with the players in camp, to do a lot of observation, and to create his own perception of what the team is. If the preseason was any indication, scoring a grand total of eight goals in six games and finishing up with a five-game losing streak feels like a sign of things to come.
The Flyers traditionally are no different than any other team in the city. When a new season begins, it’s a clean slate and that is usually met with the excitement of possibility. To see the schedule at the first game of an 82-game season can create an anticipation of what could be on the horizon.
But there is little hope for this team, and perhaps the biggest reason is because they don’t even know what kind of team they are. Ask the fans and the pundits and most see a bottom-five team that will be in the sweepstakes for the NHL’s next big superstar. Ask the coach, and he’s not focused on what the team is by the numbers, but the identity they create. Ask the GM, and he’s excited for the opportunity to shock the world.
Maybe Tortorella has a plan for how to turn the team around on the ice, but as a franchise, the same aimless process continues. There is no concrete plan.
They are the franchise that doesn’t want to admit that being among the bottom feeders and taking a step back may be the better thing for the franchise. It’s just not what the Flyers do. They never have. And it could be detrimental for just how long this period of all-time low expectations and anticipation continues.