Quick Hits and Musings: Tortorella, Captaincy, Coach-Media Relationship
Quick Hits: June 23, 2022
1) New Flyers head coach John Tortorella met informally with members of the local media on Tuesday at the Flyers Training Center in Voorhees, as well as with season ticket holders. The media session was mostly off-the-record. However, a portion of it was permitted to be reported as follow-up questions that there was not time to get to at the end of Friday's 50-minute Zoom.
During the session, Tortorella was asked his thoughts the Flyers' captaincy. The team did not have anyone wearing the "C" for the rest of the 2021-22 season after longtime captain Claude Giroux was traded to the Florida Panthers. Tortorella indicated that there no hurry to name a new captain. No decision will be made until the end of training camp.
There are, in my opinion, three viable candidates for the captaincy. Sean Couturier could handle the role and fits the "leader by example" mold. Cam Atkinson, who played under Tortorella in Columbus and has a high-energy personality, would also fit the bill. My personal choice, however, would be Scott Laughton. A case could also be made for Kevin Hayes.
2) A player does not have to be a team's biggest star to be an effective captain. He has to show leadership in a variety of ways. On a daily basis, Laughton brings an outstanding work ethic to the rink. If you didn't know he was a veteran whose roster spot is safe, you'd think he was a tryout player trying to make an impression at practice. As a well-established player, it's been years since Laughton was playing for a job. He's just conducting himself on the ice the only way he knows how: with gusto.
Secondly, Laughton is a very straightforward type of guy when it comes to giving self-critiques or assessments of team play. He doesn't throw anyone under the bus but he also doesn't sugarcoat things. During the agonizing 2021-22 season, when bluntly honest assessments on the state of the team were in order, the go-to players (in my opinion) to seek out were Laughton or Justin Braun. There are other good interview subjects on the team and a whole lot of likeable people but Laughton and Braun were the two last season who always got right to the heart of the matter.
Additionally, whenever there's a new player on the team, "Laughts" is inevitably one of the first teammates mentioned when it comes to making the new guy feel welcomed and included. This goes for rookies and recently acquired vets alike, but especially the young players. He recalls firsthand what it's like to try to carve out a niche on a team. He's played up and down the lineup from lines two to four, played center and wing, made his NHL debut at age 18 but also went back to junior hockey and later went down to the AHL the year after spending most of a season in the NHL.
Last but not least, Laughton has spent his entire career in the Flyers' organization, from being a first-round pick in 2012 to being a 28-year-old veteran a decade later. Being a Flyer means a lot to him. He takes great pride in representing the club, whether on-ice or off-ice. The team's struggles the last few years are something he takes personally. I wish every player took it so much to heart; not only as a matter of personal pride but also because this is where each player truly wants to be and is emotionally invested in being part of for the long haul.
Dave Poulin never the biggest name on the Flyers' roster -- although he was a 30-goal scorer and a Selke Trophy winner during his years in Philly -- but he was the second-best captain in franchise history. Only Bobby Clarke surpassed Poulin and that's because he was the ultimate leader on two Stanley Cup winning teams while the mid-1980s Flyers "only" were a two-time Cup Finalist.
Jason Smith was only with the Flyers for one season (2007-08) but, as team captain, he was an important part of the club's instant turnaround -- an Eastern Conference Final run -- one season after the worst year in franchise history. Why was Smith, an old-school defensive defenseman, so important as a leader?
Go back to the 2006-07 season. The Flyers' roster was a revolving door of journeyman veterans and not-ready-for-primetime recalls from the Phantoms. There was a malaise, even indifference that some players tried to fight against (Derian Hatcher, Mike Knuble, Simon Gagne, Sami Kapanen being among the most disgusted at what they witnessed) but did not start to lift until Paul Holmgren jettisoned the players who either didn't care or simply didn't want to be there.
At one juncture of the 2006-07 season, the normally easy-going Gagne, exploded behind closed doors in the dressing room when he saw teammates who were laughing off a particularly ugly loss.
"I couldn't believe it. I shouted, 'We're f-in' last! Show some f-in' pride!'" Gagne recalled to the late Jay Greenberg in Flyers at 50.
Near the 2007 trade deadline, Holmgren asked Hatcher if he wanted to be traded to a contender or if he wanted to stay with the Flyers. The GM pledged that he'd do everything he could to upgrade the roster and to restore a competitive mindset teamwide.
"Homer, I want to be here. I want to win here," Hatcher said.
By the next season, Holmgren kept his promise to overhaul the roster. The additions of Danny Briere, Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell were huge. But so was the change in mindset. Smith was a big part of bringing in some stable leadership.
Apart from what he brought on the ice (shot-blocking, penalty killing, a physical bent to his game, routinely standing up for his goalie and other teamates), Smith also had an insanely high pain tolerance. During the 2008 playoffs, he somehow played through BOTH left shoulder and right shoulder separations. Never conceded anything on tice. Never let anything on publicly until after the playoffs that he was anything other than healthy. Never made an excuse including his team being shorthanded for why a powerhouse Penguins team beat the Flyers in five games in the Eastern Conference Final.
In that one year as a Flyer, Smith embodied an attitude and mindset that the team had misplaced. He wasn't the only one, of course, nor did he have the biggest on-ice impact of the new arrivals. But one look at which guy was wearing the C made it clear what sort of intangibles were being emphasized in addition to the talent upgrades.
The Flyers situation in 2022 is somewhat similar to 2007. Unfortunately, the club doesn't have nearly the cap space it did back then to add high-end free agents such as Briere or to sign new acquisitions like Timonen or Hartnell to long-term contracts. There also isn't a 40-goal-scorer like Gagne already on the roster or clear-cut rising young stars such as Jeff Carter or Mike Richards who were obviously on the cusp of a big breakthrough. There's no Atlanta Thrashers to trade a young defenseman with Braydon Coburn's upside in exchange for the short-term of an Alexei Zhitnik for a single push to get in the playoffs.
On the flip side, there aren't nearly the same character issues on the current team that existed on the 2006-07 team. No one who is markedly out of shape. No one who could hardly have cared less about whether he was a Flyer or went somewhere else. As for some of the younger players, there's higher upside to Cam York than there ever was to Alexandre Picard, more untapped NHL potential in Morgan Frost than in Ryan Potulny (who'd been a top collegiate and AHL producer), a higher possible playoff to Owen Tippett than to Stefan Ruzicka.
With the current team, to be totally honest, I don't know if a one-year turnaround from bottom-feeder to a deep playoff run (and the start of a five-year period of contendership) is possible. But I do know that the team needs to establish a new leadership core and needs to embrace a mentally tougher and more resilient mindset.
Tortorella is very capable of establishing structure and demanding players commit themselves to being competitive on a game-in and game-out basis. That's one of his main strengths as a coach. In terms of getting locker room buy-in, Laughton (or Couturier or Atkinson) could be a central piece of the revised leadership group puzzle. That does not address the very real need for roster upgrades or solve the cap management dilemma. However, right now, overhauling the team mindset to being a harder team to play against is something that is doable and realistic.
3) One of the questions asked on Tuesday dealt with Tortorella's relationship with the media, including the New York Post's Larry Brooks (with whom "Torts" famously tangled).
"You're going to figure out me by our interactions, when we do a story together or by how I coach or handle certain situations," Tortorella said. "By what players say about me. I'm not going to define it. I'm not."
I am still in Texas (I'll be back up in Philadelphia for Draft and Development Camp coverage) so I was unable to attend Tortorella's media get-together. Had I been there, I'd have wanted to proactively get a sense of Tortorella's day-to-day preferences in terms of what he will or will not share with the media.
For example, if we ask him the day before a game who the starting goalie will be the next night, will he answer it? Throughout the regular season, at least, both Alain Vigneault and Mike Yeo were open to publicly naming their starter for the next game. Conversely, Dave Hakstol rarely did so except during the preseason.
Vigneault and Yeo were also both good about sharing the approximate timetable for an injured player to rejoin practice and then rejoin the lineup. The playoffs, understandably, were a different story. As generous as Vigneault was during the 2019-20 regular season about answering questions ranging from whether line combination changes at practice would carry over into the next game or the thought process behind a mid-game adjustment, he told us at the start of the playoffs in the bubble that he'd no longer answer such questions until the next season.
It didn't stop reporters from asking, anyway, because it's part of the job. But Vigneault was true to his word. Interviewing playoff AV was a much less fruitful experience than regular season media sessions. The 2021-22 Flyers, of course, fell far short of reaching the playoffs. Nonetheless, it should be said that Mike Yeo was incredibly generous with his time and in sharing player assessments, injury updates, explaining the workflow at practice and reassessing the previous game after having a chance to rewatch it on video. As long as Yeo wasn't being asked to reveal something his players didn't already know -- or which was intended to be kept behind the closed doors -- he'd answer just anything having to do with the team.
With Tortorella, well, the word "brevity" is an understatement when it comes to describing his communications style with the media during a playoff series. During the postseason, he's been known to speak for 30 seconds or less and then walk off. His infamous temper is also more likely to flash if he's pressed on a non-answer. That's said not to be the norm during the regular season -- if tensions arise, it's usually situational.
Many who have regularly covered Tortorella's teams have said that the veteran head coach is normally engaging, forthcoming and relaxed on a day-to-day basis but there's also a chance that the wording of a question will rub him the wrong way or he'll cherry pick an opportunity to jump all over a portion of a question that's already been asked. The key is to not take it personally. Things aren't going to go smoothly each and every day, regardless of the coach.
I recall one time where the normally low-key Dave Hakstol was asked about a player with poor analytics who was in an upper-end lineup role. The reporter started citing underlying analytics and was quickly cut off.
"Don't quote the numbers at me! I know the numbers!" Hakstol snapped. "But do YOU know the difficulty of the matchups we have him in, who he's out playing against?! Do you know how much he's been helping out our other lines?!"
Hakstol later privately apologized to the reporter. He said that he'd overreacted and added that he'd gone back and reviewed video of some recent games and could see the validity of the question being asked.
Hakstol was still an inexperienced NHL coach at the time at the time the aforementioned story. Tortorella, of course, has been around the block many, many times and he's also worked in the broadcasting business. One thing that media-savvy coaches recognize is that creating a basic rapport -- addressing a reporter by his or her first name -- goes a long way in the overall relationship.
During his introductory Zoom conference last Friday, I noticed that Tortorella made a point of referring to each and every reporter by name when they asked their first question. Similarly, Vigneault almost always said hello to everyone by name. Yeo did the same.
Until late in his Flyers tenure, Hak did not do that. I've told this story before. During his second season as Flyers head coach, I walked past him one day and he greeted me by name. I hesitated for a moment, thinking perhaps Bill Clement or Bill Barber was walking behind me, since I wasn't sure Dave even knew who I was. But Hak was, in fact, speaking to me.
Over time, especially by 2017-18, Hakstol relaxed a bit. He'd chat a little, crack an occasional joke. One time, during a media scrum after a morning skate, I'd forgotten to turn off my cell phone. It rang.
"No cellphones on in the dressing room; that's a fine," Hakstol said. "It goes to my beer fund."
Not five seconds later, Jay Greenberg's cell phone rang.
"Windfall for my beer fund!" Hakstol cracked with a grin.
Former Flyers general manager Ron Hextall told the media contingent a few times that he loved talking with Hakstol; whether about hockey or non-hockey topics and that the coach actually had a good sense of humor off the ice even if he rarely showed it. Such occasions did not come up very often -- that's why I remember the "beer fund" story -- but it hinted that there was a pretty decent guy behind the aloof exterior.
A few weeks after Hakstol was dismissed as head coach by new general manager Chuck Fletcher, I had a text exchange with Dave. Standard stuff; just wishing him well. But I have always appreciated what he wrote back to me: "You do great work for the Flyers and for the sport. Stay in touch."
Seven months later, I saw Hakstol at the NHL Draft in Vancouver. He was talking part in an NHL Coaches Association symposium session that had just concluded. I spent about 5 minutes chatting with him in the hallway. It was just small talk but this was a different sort of interaction than a media interview. He was warm and friendly; not on his guard.