John Tortorella is the 23rd head coach in Flyers history. Interestingly enough, after just one season, he is 18th all time in wins (31). He can also jump up another five spots on the list if he can eke out at least 30 wins this year.
When he came on board last year, there were a lot of people who were concerned that his past “reputation” would follow him here to Philly. He had a reputation of being someone who could be hard on players who weren’t, at least according to him, “giving it their all”. Critics waited with baited breath this past season to see him lash out.
Interestingly enough, he didn’t do that. He tried, as best he could, to keep any problems in house and defended his guys from any negative journalism. Yes, it is true that he had a falling out with Kevin Hayes and Tony DeAngelo along the way. However, he never publicly berated them or shamed them. Despite this, there were still some in the hockey world who felt that Tortorella was the cause of all of the issues and he was an unwise hockey hire in Philadelphia.
All in all, Tortorella had a decent season. When you compare where the Flyers were a year ago and how many injuries they had to go through, it wasn’t awful. I’m not saying it was a good year, but the team, especially the younger players, showed some growth. This got me thinking about previous Flyers coaches and what happened with them.
Including Tortorella, the Flyers have had many of some of the greatest coaches of all time helming the club. Fred Shero brought the team to greatness in the 1970s. Hall of Famers Pat Quinn, Roger Neilson, and Ken Hitchcock have all coached the Flyers. Likely future Hall of Famers Mike Keenan, Peter Laviolette, John Stevens, and Alain Vigneault have also added Philadelphia to their resumes. With the exception of Shero, it hasn’t worked out. Nobody else has won a Stanley Cup. Why?
If we start with the somewhat tumultuous tenure of Bobby Clarke as general manager, we can start to see a pattern develop. Between 1994-95 and December of 2006, the Flyers had seven coaches: Terry Murray, Wayne Cashman, Nielson, Craig Ramsay, Bill Barber, Hitchcock, and Stevens. Two of them, Cashman and Ramsay, lasted a year or less.
Some of the reasons that these guys didn’t last was because of personality clashes with the sometimes volatile Clarke. Some were seen as being “players coaches” and too close to them. However, there were other reasons that several of these guys didn’t last. Allegedly, Eric Lindros didn’t like some of his coaches. We know he didn’t like Murray and hung him out to dry following the 1997 Stanley Cup loss. Others, it is just speculation. However, this did set a precedent for a future generation of Flyers.
Laviolette did not like the antics of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. The two were fond of partying and the coach did not care for it. It was one of the reasons the Flyers shook the team up by trading away their star players and taking a chance on Ilya Bryzgalov instead. Lavy had won a Stanley Cup in Carolina with a team devoid of superstar power. Yet, he couldn’t get the guys in Philly to do more with a lineup of dynamic, young talent. Lavy also didn’t get along with a young James van Riemsdyk and was partially instrumental in seeing him traded away as well.
After four years, the players stopped tuning into what Laviolette had to say and he was let go in 2013-14 after three games. Since then, he guided the Nashville Predators to a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. Now, he is tasked with putting the New York Rangers back into the spotlight.
Next up was Berube. Better known for being a fighter and one of the most heavily penalized men in NHL history, he captained the Flyers to a playoff spot after taking the reigns over for Laviolette. However, one year later, he too was fired after a dismal season. Four years later, he got his chance to coach again. This time, in his first season in 2018-19, he took the St. Louis Blues to a seven game victory over the Boston Bruins to capture the first Stanley Cup Championship in team history.
Following Berube, new general manager Ron Hextall rolled the dice on a college coach with lots of success: Dave Hakstol. In Philadelphia, Hakstol didn’t get a chance to do too much. Looking back on it, it would appear that several of the players on the team saw him as just a “college coach” and didn’t really listen to him.
Now in Seattle, Hakstol is proving all the doubters wrong. He has put together a team of players that are willing to work with him. In return for getting the confidence of the players, Hakstol has turned the Kraken from a bumbling expansion team to a playoff team in one season. Perhaps had some of the veteran Flyers accepted this “college coach” as their coach and mentor, they could have brought home the Stanley Cup to Broad Street.
Finally we come to Alain Vigneault. In his first season in Philly, he was a Jack Adams Award finalist. The Flyers were the hottest team in the NHL before the league shut down for COVID concerns and he guided them to a deep playoff run during the bubble playoffs. It looked like Flyers hockey was back to town.
Just as quickly, things fell apart. Vigneault, like Tortorella, was known as a coach who can build a winning squad, but it came at the cost of alienating some players. Much like with Laviolette and Hakstol before, players began to tune him out. The team began to lose. Whatever reason, Travis Konecny became a major target of Vigneault’s and his production began to suffer. It’s easy to see why his stats got better after AV was let go.
While people may like to paint Tortorella as a “bad” coach because he doesn’t get along with all of his players, it simply is not true. Coaches, like AV, had downright poisonous relationships with players that got into the public eye. Other coaches, like Murray, got simply railroaded by star players and were forced off the team. There were also those coaches, like Hakstol, that the team simply tuned out and didn’t follow.
Being a coach is not easy. You have pressure from the fans, the team administration, and the players to succeed. Like any boss, you are going to have some workers you get along with and other workers you will not. Being able to put all that aside and work for the greater good is the ability of a great leader. Sometimes you can do it, sometimes you can’t.
It is interesting that Hakstol, Laviolette, and Berube all succeeded, to various degrees, after leaving the Flyers. Perhaps it is because they learned something here in Philly that helped them to do better in a change of scenery. Perhaps a change of scenery is what they needed as well, working with a different cast of players who may be more willing to adjust to the system the coach is trying to install. Some coaches are lambasted for being a “players coach” while others are criticized for being too harsh. It seems that no matter what you do, you can’t win.
It’s a shame that veteran players also don’t give coaches a chance. It’s one thing if a coach obviously doesn’t know what they are doing, but I can’t imagine a guy like that making it into the NHL ranks unless they are buddies of the GM or something. You get to that pinnacle by showing you have the ability to lead and teach. If players are openly defying their coach, there needs to be some discipline. When that doesn’t happen, a breakdown in the team happens. We’ve seen that too many times in Philly.
It’s easy to put the blame entirely on the coach when the relationship between coach and players go sour. While sometimes it is, the players have their part in it as well. It’s one thing if the coach is just super demanding, setting unrealistic expectations, and nothing is ever good enough. It’s a completely different thing if a player, high on his own ego and abilities, just refuses to comply with the coach’s requests. That is simply insubordination and can’t be tolerated. Because of that, keeping players like Hayes and DeAngelo around would undermine and erode Tortorella’s influence and authority on the team. They had to leave. If they didn’t leave, they would potentially spread this poison to other, younger players on the team and Tortorella would eventually be fired as yet another coach who could not control this team; another in a long string of ineffectual coaches surrounded by talented players.
Tortorella had a decent first season in Philly when you look at all of the issues he had to deal with. If he can get the players that will return for the 2023-24 season to continue building off of what he has started, he will be successful. Or, history will repeat itself and the revolving door of Philadelphia Flyers head coaches will continue.