Flyers’ Tortorella laments late-season collapse

NHL

VOORHEES, N.J. — Put those playoff plans on hold, Flyers fans.

And not just this season.

Philadelphia is stuck on the outside of the postseason for the fourth straight year after its fate was decided in Game 82. The Flyers’ acceleration from expected painful rebuild to the cusp of the playoffs was faster than expected — especially among those whose opinions matter most, coach John Tortorella and general manager Danny Briere — which made the late-season free fall all the more puzzling and gut-wrenching.

As far as next season? Even then, the playoffs aren’t necessarily a benchmark in the process.

“We are a ways away,” Tortorella said Friday. “We have so much work to do with this team. There are holes in the team. It’s going to take more time.”

Added Briere: “I know the expectation next year will be, oh, we’ve got to get in the playoffs. I don’t even know that we’re there yet. It was a great year. But there’s still a long ways to go.”

Don’t all rush to order those season tickets!

The reality is, preaching patience over playoffs has been the long-term blueprint in Philadelphia since Briere took over late last season. This season — which ended when the Flyers were eliminated last week in the final game of the season — was more about finding which of the young core are worth developing as the team grows into an Eastern Conference contender.

Tyson Foerster. Cam York. Owen Tippett. Morgan Frost. Samuel Ersson.

Not a bad start. Just not enough to chase a Stanley Cup.

“I think we still need to add talent to our team,” Tortorella said.

Pushing 66, Tortorella said he’s “as energized as I’ve ever been, already thinking about next year” and will return to the bench to do his part to see the rebuild through.

“I am totally in,” Tortorella said, “until Danny says, ‘Get the hell out of here.'”

Not a chance.

Briere championed the job Tortorella did this season as he guided the Flyers to the last game of the season with meaningful hockey to play. The Flyers were widely predicted by experts, fans and oddsmakers to finish near the bottom of the NHL. In his second season on the bench, Tortorella instead squeezed every ounce of talent and grit he could out of his players to thrust them into a playoff race.

For most of the season, the Flyers not only played over their heads, they succeeded while navigating the loss of No. 1 goalie Carter Hart, who was charged with sexual assault, and the murky circumstances that led to 2022 No. 1 draft pick Cutter Gauthier forcing a trade.

Yet the end was so crushing because a playoff berth was in hand until an eight-game losing streak that bridged March and April, which proved the death knell for their season.

Tortorella largely took the blame for the collapse.

“I couldn’t get the team to close the deal,” Tortorella said. “It was a concern of mine, 25 games left or so in the season, can we stay with it? I think it’s my job to get it to the end. I think the team played hard right to the end. I just did not close the deal.”

But why? The answers are somewhat obvious on the surface. Ersson went from backup goalie to regular starter and faded down the stretch under the stress of heavy minutes. The team ran out of gas after a rugged early March schedule against some of the top teams in the NHL. Perhaps a notoriously prickly Tortorella pushed his players past the point where they could produce more than what he expected out of them.

“I’ve made some mistakes this year,” Tortorella said, “not the ones you may think I did.”

Arguably the biggest mistake was benching Sean Couturier only 34 days after he was named team captain.

Only those inside the locker room know the true consequences of Tortorella’s choice in mid-March to make a such a bold and controversial call. But Tortorella fielded multiple questions and needed nearly 10 minutes to defend himself Friday — and stood by his decision.

While Tortorella admitted the timing wasn’t great, he added, “the captaincy’s not going to stop me from holding people accountable.”

Couturier said at the time he was “frustrated with the way I’ve been treated” and his agent called out the franchise for a lack of communication.

Tortorella said Friday the criticism “kind of caught me off guard, a little bit” but defended his style inside the locker room and insisted his players always know where they stand with the coaching staff. Tortorella also blasted agent Erik Lupien calling him, “a little piss-ant out there pounding his chest that really doesn’t know what’s going on between Sean and I.”

“I think it turned into a bunch of drama,” Tortorella said.

Torts? Drama? Who, him?

“You’ve got the wrong coach here then if we’re going to be hugging,” Tortorella said.

Tortorella, who won a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004, brandished his reputation as a fiery, no-nonsense coach on a team still mostly full of young 20-somethings finding their way in the NHL. Briere has Tortorella’s back — and the coach seems to have the support of the locker room that largely expects him to return next year.

With the 12th pick in the draft, there’s little expectation of getting an impact player, and the Flyers are mostly looking at cheap, short-term deals — such as the one-year, cap-friendly deal given last year to Marc Staal — for veteran help.

“I still think there’s more that we need to do before we can take that next step and start pushing the envelope, taking some risks a little bit more,” Briere said. “I still think we’re at a stage where we need to think about the future, we need to build the right way to give us the best chance to be serious contenders for years to come and not just for a year or two.”

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