John Tortorella on Flyers: Reflecting on the Season, Couturier, Communication, and Progress

John Tortorella on Flyers: Reflecting on the Season, Couturier, Communication, and Progress

After the players held exit interviews on Wednesday, John Tortorella was first to the podium on Friday as the Flyers head coach and management closed the book on the 2023-24 season. After having a few days to reflect, Tortorella was front and center discussing a number of topics.

Ultimately, several themes prevailed. Tortorella expressed disappointment for the end of the season result, while noting progress throughout. He was asked about scratching captain Sean Couturier, how that was handled, and gave a passionate response on his process of communication with players. 

Tortorella also made very clear just how far the team has to go in the rebuild process.

‘There’s Where That Falls on Me’’

The initial thoughts from Tortorella were on the end of the season and falling short of the playoffs in the final games of the regular season. Tortorella’s response was simple enough. As much focus as there will be on the eight-game losing streak that ultimately sank the Flyers hopes, there are a lot of situations where an extra point here and there could have changed everything.

“It’s disappointing. I think the eight-game losing streak, I don’t think we played as bad as the record showed,” Tortorella said. “Easy to pinpoint that because it’s so fresh in your memory. A lot of different things could have happened early in the year when maybe you have a few more points. Yeah, I guess the biggest thing is that I’m a little frustrated with – that I couldn’t get the team to close the deal, right? That’s what we wanted to do.”

But Tortorella elaborated further with how the team’s style of play may have also had something to do with the timing of the losing streak. And Tortorella shouldered the blame for not being able to help the team make adjustments when the neutral zone started to close off in later games in the season and the rush was a much more scarce part of the game.

“The thing that was really exciting for me is we talked about a change of style. My first year, we worked our ass off in how to defend because I felt that was a part of the game that we had to play better in front of our goalies. When we started talking about a different style of stretching the zone and checking forward, all these different types of things that we changed from our first year and saw where our team went, as far as playing off the rush, it was exciting for me,” Tortorella said. “I wasn’t sure where it was going to go. We talked about it as a coaching staff prior to the season and then introduced it to the players. It kind of took off for us. 

“Having said that, I watch us play and we play. I love the way we played, but when you get to the last quarter or so things change, that neutral zone shuts down. That’s where I think it falls on my shoulders that you can’t play the same style all the time. We needed to add a little bit more forechecking. We have to grind on our team. When we’re not, we weren’t and won’t and didn’t get pushed around, but we need to develop more offense within the zone and the grind of it. That’s where that falls on me that we needed to get more then, at the end of the year, because the game changes. I think that’s one of the points that I think hurt us at the end. I don’t think we spent enough time on that part of it.” 

‘We Are a Ways Away’

For the last several weeks, Tortorella talked extensively about the importance of playing meaningful games down the stretch. What ultimately happened was a big part of his reasoning. 

Getting players to experience the change in the season, the shift to more intense competitive games that still don’t meet the level of the playoffs can go a long way. 

“That’s why it was important to be playing these games and some guys that just didn’t, weren’t able to get it done,” Tortorella said. “Now, do you make a decision that they just can’t handle it? Is that who they are? Or do you continue working with them? All those conversations are going to happen here in the next week or so with the organization, Danny and everybody. I have my thoughts and that’s how you build. That’s how you go about it.”

One of the points in the season where things obviously shifted was at the deadline. The Flyers traded Sean Walker and lost Nick Seeler, Jamie Drysdale, and Rasmus Ristolainen in short order due to injury. Despite falling short of the playoffs, Tortorella reiterated that the decision on Walker was the correct one with further elaboration on just how far the team still has to go.

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

“Just because we got close and looked at it, it was frustrating for me because I felt that was a part of development. If you have that close to get there, do you want to get in? That’s where I’m disappointed because then you get to test them a little bit more in that time. You guys keep on saying, ‘this is like a playoff game.’ They weren’t because they weren’t playoff games. We want it to get there. That’s what was disappointing to me. That’s what I’m disappointed in myself a little bit. Could you do it or done this differently? Because just to play a few, I don’t think we do a whole bunch in it, but we get an opportunity. Get that thought out of your head. We’re staying with the process or it turns into a team just spinning its wheels in the mud again. No, no. That is not the philosophy. That is not the discussions that we’ve had. We are sticking with this and it is going to take some time.”

“I Am Totally In…Until Danny Says ‘Get the Hell Out of Here’”

One of the big questions surrounding the Flyers was John Tortorella’s future. The upper management of the team had already stated that Tortorella was going to be behind the bench next season, but rumors of Tortorella moving to the front office had also been swirling all season.

Tortorella set the record straight.

“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.’”

On the Sean Couturier Scratching and His Relationship with the Captain

Certainly a popular topic as the season drew to a close was the impact it may have had on the team. At the time, Sean Couturier had expressed frustration with the situation and hinted at knowing not much more than Tortorella was sharing to the media. 

Tortorella detailed the situation from his perspective.

“Why wouldn’t I communicate with Sean if I’m taking him out of the lineup?” Tortorella said. “Did you think to ask yourself that? Why wouldn’t I? I did. I am not going to tell you what was said. 

“What happens on a game day, at eight o’clock in the morning, I’ll put the lineup up. I was sitting out Staalsy, Cam [Atkinson], I think Nic [Deslauriers] was out, and Sean. I went to them the day before. I sat with Sean, not going to tell you what I said. We had a discussion about why he’s coming out because I didn’t want to see him come to the board, eight o’clock in the morning and see that he’s out. I read some of your stuff with this. I know you’ve beat the drum with it. Why would I want to disrespect him that way?”

Does Tortorella have concerns about this could affect the coach-captain relationship? 

“Not a chance because Sean and I communicated through that. Listen, I know what Sean said to you guys after. It kind of caught me off guard a little bit. I think it’s the first time Sean has been through something like that, so it really wasn’t a big deal for me,” Tortorella said. “I think it turned into a bunch of drama. You talk to a guy that’s really not his agent and he gets to pound his chest. Some little pissant out there, pounding his chest that really doesn’t know what’s going on between Sean and I. He doesn’t. I get he’s trying to protect him, but it turned into a situation where – I get he’s the captain and the timing of it all isn’t great. The captaincy is not going to stop me from holding people accountable. 

“If I determined that other players are playing better, and it was going on for a while, Sean had struggled for a while prior to that, I’m going to make that call. I will never ever, especially a player of Sean and I talked to Cam [Atkinson] the day before. I talked to Marc [Staal] because they’re veteran guys. I don’t want them coming to the board and say, ‘[expletive], I’m out.’ Those conversations were had the day before. I’m always going to communicate in that type of situation.”

Tortorella understood that Couturier didn’t agree with the scratching. He added that’s what helps build the relationship and what he loves about Couturier as a player.

“Now whether the player agrees with it, and Sean didn’t. That’s what I love about him,” Tortorella said. “He didn’t. He disagrees. We just talked yesterday and we disagreed on a lot of stuff. That’s what I love about him. He’s willing to say what’s on his mind, and that’s how our relationship is going to grow.

If I take a guy of that stature out, I’m going to communicate what it was. I felt I did and then we followed up after with video and tried to work that. I’m not in the business to disrespect people. I think sometimes the way I do things, I’m honest about it and it turns into a bit of a frenzy of all this sensitivity stuff. If everybody’s going to be happy coaching under me, I’m not doing my job. I want you to understand that. I want you all to understand that with Sean, I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. But I’m going to coach players the way I think I need to coach them.”

That willingness to disagree is part of what Tortorella wants to see. He doesn’t seek players out for their thoughts. He wants players to come to him with disagreements and have conversations.

“The thing that I want you guys to understand, and that I think the players do understand, I’ve got to coach 23 other people too,” Tortorella said. “If it isn’t enough, come into my goddamn office, put your fist down and say, ‘you know what, what are you talking about?’ instead of doing it there with you. I’m not talking about Sean’s situation. If a player has a problem, and this is the way I operate, I want that conversation because I have other things to worry about too with other players. 

“That’s what happens with players sometimes. They have to be selfish about themselves because I think that’s the way they can be the best they can be. I can’t be running around with you all day long. I’ve got other things going on too. I talked to Marc Staal in that same situation, Cam Atkinson in that same situation, Nic Deslauriers how I was going to use him in certain times because his role had changed. There’s a lot of things that go on. I want players to come to me if they have a bitch and they haven’t got enough information because I am right there for them.”

Tortorella was also asked, in turn, about Couturier’s play early in the season. Couturier returned looking very much like the player of old in the first half of the season, while playing the usual workload of a top-line center. After a while, especially considering Couturier had just returned from nearly two years off of game action, a slowdown was expected. Does Tortorella have any second-thoughts about how Couturier’s minutes were distributed knowing that was the case?

“I don’t have a crystal ball. No, and you think Sean was pissed off if I sat him then. If I’m playing him 10 or 12 minutes early on in the game, he’d be pissing and moaning then at the beginning of the season,” Tortorella said. “Absolutely not. You guys can pick it apart any way you want. Coaches don’t have a crystal ball to find out what a player is going to be later in the year. 

“I’ll leave it at that. I want to make sure, Sean and I, we’re on. We communicated yesterday. Are we going to agree to disagree? Absolutely. Probably a lot, but that’s what I want. I think that’s what a captain’s about. The captain’s got to come to me and say, ‘you know what? This is going on, can we fix this or whatever it may be?’ I think that’s what is going to be our relationship. I think it’s going to be a very strong relationship.”

On the Power Play Struggles and How to Fix Them

The Flyers had several areas of concern throughout the season where improvement was definitely needed. Most of those surfaced down the stretch as competition go tougher or the wear of the season took its toll.

One consistency was the struggle of the power play, which never found momentum from Day 1. The Flyers power play ranked 32nd in the league for the third straight season. Naturally, there was going to be talk about potential changes to come there. But the changes that could be made are not going to necessarily involve moving anyone.

“No, I think Rocky [Thompson] is a terrific coach. Danny and I have talked about this. I think three really big points with our team that organizationally, we’re going to have to discuss and even ask,” Tortorella said. “I think we’ve got some pretty bright offensive people within our organization that played in the league. We need to have discussion on our power play. Rocky Thompson is one hell of a coach. He’s so frustrated as the players are, as we all are with our power play. I got a general manager that was one of the best power play guys in the game. Danny and I, we’re gonna 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 three-on-three play is a point of emphasis. I think our four-on-four play has to be. I made a mistake this year, on our three-on-three and four-on-four that we did not practice it enough. It’s sometimes hard to practice because you got other things going on, and sometimes that just may be a couple of minutes of the game. I think I failed the team this year that we did not do enough work on that. We did a lot of work in the power play, just was not good. Organizationally, we have to sit down and talk about that and Rocky Thompson is going to for sure be in that conversation.”

Tortorella specifically mentioned having guys like Patrick Sharp, Dany Heatley, and John LeClair within the front office, and how their minds and experiences on the power play could help bring new ideas to the table. It’s a new form of collaboration that the Flyers are going to employ to try to fix their biggest weakness.

“It’s one of the true perks for me as a coach to have a general manager that’s an ex-player and a pretty damn good player in his day, and has gone through the minors and has done it all,” Tortorella said. “I rely on him in helping me navigate through this. We’ve talked about this and discussions will be good. There’ll be discussions throughout the year I’m sure once we start this. 

“I’m not sure what it looks like yet because we just started talking about it, but it’s a very big point as we move forward here. That power play shouldn’t be as bad as it has been with the people that we have here right now. I do think we need to add talent to our team, not just for that, but if we’re going to go further up the process here of building, we’re going to explore this.”

On the Goalie Situation Going into Next Season

“I’m going to lean on [Kim Dillabaugh]. I think [Ivan Fedotov] needs to get in better shape. It’s been such a crazy time for him, and just to have a better focus coming over to a new country. For Sam [Ersson], you guys know how I feel about Sam. I just think he’s made tremendous strides. There were struggles because I played the hell out of him. As I said to you last week, I would do the same thing. The way he answered at the end, I’m glad he can hang his hat on that.”

On Making Progress This Season

“I think we forget because we get so close that holy [expletive], this was an awful year. We progressed this year. A number of players progressed this year. I found out a style of play that fits us this year. I found out that we have some work to do on how to play in other parts of the year. These are questions and I think we have some answers. If you’re getting answers and most of them I think are positive, then you’ve progressed. I think the players should feel good about themselves.”

On Whether His Message Late in the Season was More Advanced

“I think the style of play is one that because I had, we pulled back the last four or five games we wanted to play better in front of our goalies. The Montreal game, the Columbus game, I think it was too late. You have to pull back and worry about the grind that is the defensive part of the game. 

“The effort part of the game, you’re talking about the Islanders, I don’t take one word back from that. I do not take anything back from that because I think it was a situation that 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, want them to understand that there is a whole different level of hardness that comes with this as you start getting better as an organization. 

“We moved along pretty well this year, probably quicker than a lot of people thought, but then we’re there. I just want them to know that for probably 25-27 minutes of that game, it was unacceptable and I wanted to end it right there. We can’t go there or we won’t have any chance. Like I said, it’s right there. It’s right in front of us. Why not test yourself now? Do I think we’re going to the Final? No, I don’t, but the playoffs are there. Let’s test ourselves and how hard you have to play to finish it and we didn’t. Now, if that hurt people, like you know, I know it’s been, if that hurt people, then we’re finding out about people because if the same thing came up again, I would do the same thing. 

“Is it – well, I’ll leave it at that. You’re not going to get me because of what you think is too hard for people not to be hard. That is accountability. That is part of growing a team. As I said, you got the wrong coach here then if we’re going to be hugging and ‘we were here guys, played a lousy period and a half there, but it’s okay.’ You’re not getting that from me. Ever. Those are decisions my management has to make if they think I made a mistake and they say they show me the door, so be it. I am not coming off of that because that’s how you build a hockey team. That’s how you build a mindset of a team that you guys want to be contenders and that’s why we’re gonna go about it. I’m not coming off of that.”

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