For the Flyers' Sake, John Tortorella and Cam Atkinson Must Mend Fences

Bad relations between coach and player have led to awful trades by the Flyers. Are we on the verge of another?
Apr 1, 2024; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Flyers right wing Cam Atkinson (89) during pregame warmups against the New York Islanders at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 1, 2024; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Flyers right wing Cam Atkinson (89) during pregame warmups against the New York Islanders at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports / Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Flyers and Tortorella have done this before, we have seen it.  Last time it was right before the Kevin Hayes trade, perhaps the worst transaction of Briere’s tenure. First, there was a frosty exit interview from a player, a month passed, and then bang, all that was left of Hayes was half his salary and a cloud of dust. The Flyers shipped Hayes, while retaining half his salary, to St. Louis for a sixth-round pick. As a reminder, the Rangers got a first and a fourth-round pick for Hayes in 2019. The Flyers traded away a fifth-round pick for exclusive negotiating rights to Hayes that summer. Jettisoning Hayes before last season was just another in a string of bad trades that the Flyers have executed over the years. Let’s not do this again, especially with Cam Atkinson.

While it was easy to see that a Hayes-Tortorella union was going to be a challenge, the Atkinson situation is much different and much more dire.  Where Hayes’ cerebral style was not going to work, Atkinson is a Tortorella guy. A player who punches above his weight and overcomes perceived shortcomings in his skills or talents. A player who does not let up and plays the game the right way. A player who wills his way to success with maximum effort. Let's not forget Atkinson was the coach’s biggest booster in the locker room. Atkinson spoke glowingly of Tortorella’s arrival.

But then this season happened. The Flyers missed the playoffs with a season-ending flameout, and Tortorella was not happy.  Soon it became apparent that Atkinson, who did not play in the third period in the season finale, wasn’t happy either. This brings us to now, where it looks like Atkinson is asking for a way out of Tortstown. It is not a good look when your biggest fan wants out. Who could blame Atkinson for the coach’s public critique which was surmised as “He just needs to play better”?  That kind of coach speak, especially from someone as pointed as Tortorella gives me a bad feeling. Worse, it likely served to do nothing for Atkinson but frustrate him further.

John Tortorella and Cam Atkinson need to see eye to eye

As a coach, Tortorella has a history of being frank with his players. If he does not like something he is not shy to say it, even if he is wrong.  But how is a player to respond to “Just play better”?  It is not, try harder, play defense, pass the puck, shoot the puck, or take the body.  A statement like “Just play better” means anything, everything, and nothing all at once. It is not helpful to the player. There is no direction for the player to follow. To me, it is a cop-out or a blame shift by the coach. Whatever it is not coaching.

Atkinson did not have a great year.  He played in 70 games and netted only 13 goals while sporting a career-low 7.4% shooting percentage. It should also be noted that Atkinson did not score after January, and saw his minutes decrease dramatically. After missing a full season due to nerve damage and muscle degradation, it is hard not to look at the season as a success from a human perspective, though I am sure Atkinson, and Tortorella, would view it much more harshly.

Scorers need to score. Offensive players need to put the pucks in the net to be valuable. But Atkinson has more to his game than scoring. Even with hefty goal totals in his past, Atkinson has been a shooter, someone who will put the puck in the net at a high rate. Unlike a pure finisher who operates more like an ambush hunter, seizing the right opportunity and making opponents pay, Atkinson’s game is more territorial, constantly forcing the puck to the offensive end.  He makes use of tenacious forechecking and a high work rate along the boards to force turnovers and take control of the puck.  Atkinson can do more than score goals.

It still appears that Atkinson wants to score goals, it looks like he LOVES scoring goals. Maybe he can’t do it as frequently, but he still gives a great effort on most nights Atkinson kills penalties, blocks shots and typically plays hockey the “right way” according to the Gospel of Tortorella. Atkinson is nearly 35, coming back from a debilitating injury, and may not be at his physical peak. Maybe the issue is Tortorella fails to see or consider that Atkinson has aged. Would Tortorella begrudge one of his older horses if it could not run as fast? Would it be off to the glue factory for Trigger? 

This is not an Atkinson problem or even an Atkinson/Tortorella problem. This is squarely a Tortorella issue. Maybe he expected that Atkinson would score 25 goals, but is that Atkinson’s fault?  Maybe the coach was asking for what could not be done. Maybe Tortorella should evaluate, recalibrate, and ultimately take responsibility for the player’s “shortcoming”. He is the coach. Would a good coach expect a 2019 Cam Atkinson in 2023? Would a good coach blame the player when the coach made a bad evaluation or set the bar too high? When asking a guy to “play better”, it is not much different than asking him to play like he was at his peak, or when he was younger and not as injured. That is not coaching. 

Atkinson is still a good player who could help teams as a guy who could play up and down the lineup and on special teams. Gifting him for a low pick while eating his salary because he is not the player he was eight years ago is ridiculous. Doing it because he is not the player John Tortorella thinks he is in his mind is even worse. The best thing for the Flyers would be to get Atkinson happy and playing decent minutes again. It is Tortorella’s job to do just that.