10 things from Flyers exit interview day: DeAngelo’s scratching, Atkinson’s injury, JvR’s disappointment and more

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10 things from Flyers exit interview day: DeAngelo’s scratching, Atkinson’s injury, JvR’s disappointment and more

Exit interview day — when each player has an opportunity to put a bow on his just-concluded season, before heading back home for the summer.

Ideally, the events of Friday would have occurred after a long, grueling playoff run. But the Philadelphia Flyers won’t be playing any extra games this season, so their summer begins in mid-April, with Friday in Voorhees serving as the unofficial starting point.

As always, the six-plus hour exit interview day was filled with intriguing tidbits of information, from honesty regarding injuries to frank evaluations of individual performance. To break down the day’s key events, it’s time to bring back an old staple: the 10 Things format.

1. DeAngelo wants to stay but keeps mum about scratching

There was one big unanswered question as the season came to a close.

Why in the heck did John Tortorella scratch Tony DeAngelo for the final five games of the regular season?

DeAngelo had his first chance to discuss Tortorella’s decision on Friday, and mostly chose to keep quiet about what sparked the benching.

“I’m sure there’s reasons for it, but nothing that either one of us are obviously willing to discuss,” DeAngelo said. “I’ll just leave it at that.”

After DeAngelo was scratched two Thursdays ago against Dallas, the assumption was that it would be a short-term absence from the lineup. But he sat out again two nights later on Long Island, and then the next night back home versus Boston — even though the Flyers were in the second game of a back-to-back and had just five healthy defensemen available. Something clearly was up, beyond just wanting to give young players a look and Justin Braun a few games before he retired.

DeAngelo may not have been willing to spill the beans on exit interview day. But he didn’t shy away from revealing what he thought of the decision, even while acknowledging that he respected Tortorella as a coach.

“Do I agree with it, what happened in the last five games? Absolutely not,” DeAngelo said. “I think it’s ridiculous that I didn’t play the last five.”

Given how the season ended for DeAngelo, with the coach not even willing to dress him for games, it’s reasonable to wonder if DeAngelo — who has one more year left on his contract at a $5 million cap hit — will be back in Orange & Black next season. But DeAngelo made it clear if that proves to be the case, it won’t be because he asked out. He reiterated that he’s dreamed of being a Flyer since childhood, and a disagreement with Tortorella hasn’t changed his desire to play for the club — if they’ll have him.

“It’s something that means a lot to me, so we’re not going to let any relationship stuff get in the way,” he said. “I don’t care who the coach is. I want to come back, and this is where I want to be. I’ve wanted to be a Flyer forever.”

And DeAngelo acknowledged — as he did last week — that Tortorella’s critique of his defensive play in 2022-23 wasn’t unfounded. He may have disagreed with the extended scratching, but he didn’t lack self-awareness on exit interview day in terms of his own on-ice work.

“I thought it was very frustrating for myself to be that inconsistent this year, especially after the year I had last year where I thought I was very consistent,” DeAngelo said. “That’s not his fault. I can’t blame Torts for that, me being inconsistent and him not being happy about it. That’s stuff that I take responsibility for, and I was pissed about. It was a disappointing year for me in that sense.

“I’m not going to criticize Torts for pointing out that I made some bad plays defensively, that’s not him,” he reiterated later. “I’m not going to get mad at him for it, that’s me.”

So in summation: DeAngelo knows his defensive play was lacking, but didn’t believe it warranted a five-game end-of-season scratching — though he chose not to explain the reasoning Tortorella used to justify it. In any case, if DeAngelo has his way, he’ll be back in September for training camp, trying to smooth things over with Torts and deliver a bounce-back campaign.

“I got a sour taste in my mouth to the way things ended,” DeAngelo said. “I’ll go have a good summer, train, and get healthy, all that kind of stuff and then get ready to go again. I’m pretty confident I’ll have a real good year.”

2. Players express optimism that rebuild will be short

The DeAngelo intrigue may have been the spicy storyline heading into exit interview day. But the most consistent refrain, at least on the part of the veterans?

That whole “rebuild,” and how they believe it can be a short one.

“We’re using the rebuild word, but I think it’s on us players to just make sure we come ready (in September), and we can maybe speed up the process,” Sean Couturier said.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. The under-25 players on the roster don’t blanch at the word, because they fully expect that if all goes well, they’ll be around to enjoy the fruits of a multiyear process. The players age 30 and above? Their timelines are far shorter. So understandably, they want to believe that the Flyers aren’t staring at four years (or more) in the wilderness before things turn around.

“I don’t think we’re as far off as people think, especially if guys are healthy and certain things happen this offseason,” Cam Atkinson agreed.

“I think we have the group to turn it around quicker than probably people think,” Nicolas Deslauriers said. “You look at the standings, it’s not great, obviously. But we had some good spurts. I think we were young, I think we matured a lot this year. But that’s how hockey is. It’s gonna be a long summer. But next year, everybody starts at 0-0-0.”

The expected returns of Couturier and Atkinson in 2023-24 certainly plays into that optimism. But Couturier himself made sure not to present himself as a savior. He just pointed out how quickly a club’s destiny can change in the NHL — which the Flyers themselves learned the hard way after their exciting 2019-20 campaign.

“I’m not going to be saving this organization coming back,” he said. “I think it’s important to do this rebuild the right way. What I’m saying is, if you look at kind of like New York a couple years ago, they send out that letter and you think it’s a big rebuild – three, four years – and next thing you know they’re in the playoffs the following year, two years later, and they’ve been good since. It’s like I said, things can change quick in the NHL.”

Cam Atkinson (Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)

3. Atkinson opens up about injury

Atkinson, of course, didn’t play a single game in 2022-23 before he was shut down due to neck surgery. On Friday, he went into detail on the events that led up to that decision.

“Just wasn’t feeling well at the start of training camp. Got a couple of different MRIs and a couple misdiagnoses,” he said. “Finally, I saw someone that told me that I had a herniated disc in my C6-C7 and that I needed to get surgery right away. At the time, I really didn’t want to get surgery because it kind of freaked me out a little bit, going through the neck.”

So Atkinson tried to return to action with rehabilitation, for the time being eschewing the surgical option. And he nearly made it back, coming very close to being cleared in mid-December after returning to Columbus for a bit and working with his own outside specialists. But he still couldn’t make it through a full practice. It took until an appointment with one final doctor — a Boston College alum who had worked with the Philadelphia Eagles in the past — to finally push him to get the surgery.

“He pretty much reassured me that if I don’t take care of my atrophy in my left triceps, that I probably wouldn’t be able to play again,” Atkinson said.

Almost immediately after the surgery, Atkinson’s constant pain — which had made it difficult to sleep — dissipated. Atkinson choked up as he recalled the moment when he realized the pain had finally gone.

“Just a tough year,” he said. “Feel good, and I know this is a huge summer for me and I want to be part of the solution, and I’m going to push myself more than ever.”

4. Disconnect between players and medical staff played into Atkinson’s situation

One specific word jumped out from Atkinson’s initial explanation: misdiagnoses.

Coming after a 2021-22 campaign that saw multiple Flyers players deal with failed surgeries and rushed recovery timelines, Atkinson’s struggles to get healthy — at least at first glance — didn’t speak well for the Flyers’ supposed improvements to their medical and training departments, which ranged from the hiring of Ian McKeown as vice president of athlete performance and wellness and the turnover in the training staff, namely Tommy Alva replacing longtime trainer Jim McCrossin.

But based on Atkinson’s explanation, it seems like his issues early in the season were more the result of a residual lack of trust between players and medical staff that stemmed from the 2021-22 fiascos, and the growing pains that came with a new staff.

“It went through a pretty, pretty significant change, the new head athletic trainers and bringing in new guys that I hadn’t known as well,” Atkinson said. “You’re trying to trust certain people. I have all my trust in Tommy (Alva) and the team that’s here now. It obviously took a little bit of time just because like I was going through things that I’ve never experienced and listening to this guy, that guy, people telling me this, someone telling me that.”

It was, as Atkinson called it, “a gong show.” But according to Atkinson, that’s changed over the course of the season.

“It definitely has gotten straightened out and it’s going to continue to get better,” Atkinson said. “I’ve been rehabbing here since my surgery for the last couple months and trust them.”

Tortorella made similar comments a few weeks back, regarding his perception of the medical trust issues that existed heading into 2022-23, and the improvements that he believes have been made.

“I think there’s a huge scab on this organization with the medical situation that was prior,” Tortorella acknowledged. “I didn’t realize it when I took the job, how long some of the medical problems and how things were being handled — it’s been going on for years here. It’s not criticizing any one person. But it’s been a mess. And it’s still something that’s on one of our main burners to continue to get better.

“I think we have stabilized it. I think Tommy and his staff have done a fantastic job in stabilizing things and communicating the proper way and not jumping into operations, situations that I think happened here. But we still need to get better.”

Atkinson’s shift from leaving to be checked out by private specialists in Columbus to giving a full-throated endorsement of the Flyers’ staff on Friday seems to speak to that stabilization. According to Atkinson, he expects to be cleared for contact as early as next week, and is shooting for a 2023-24 healthy return to action.

5. JvR disappointed he wasn’t traded

In the immediate wake of the trade deadline, James van Riemsdyk was diplomatic when asked for his feelings after he was not moved to a contender.

With the season — and almost certainly his time with the Flyers — now at an end, he was willing to open up a bit more.

“I’m obviously extremely proud to be a Flyer and play for the Flyers for as many games as I have and as many years as I have. That being said, that was probably one of the more disappointing things that I’ve gone through just for a whole host of different reasons,” he said. “Definitely disappointed that I wasn’t able to get that opportunity.”

It wasn’t just that former GM Chuck Fletcher proved unable to move him. It was the comments afterward, when Fletcher — likely trying to hold onto his job — basically said that there was essentially no interest in van Riemsdyk and it was impossible to trade him. Rarely does a GM that speak that bluntly about his own player’s leaguewide value on the record.

Van Riemsdyk was asked for his thoughts on Fletcher’s post-deadline comments, and while he was careful with his words, it wasn’t difficult to read between the lines and surmise that he wasn’t exactly thrilled with Fletcher’s news conference that day.

“Oh, I don’t know if I want to dive too much into the weeds on some of those things,” JvR responded. “I know there’s lots of different ways to look at the situation. I don’t think it’s necessarily as cut and dry as it was made out to be after the fact. So yeah, I’d rather not get too far down that road.”

6. Provorov lukewarm on direction, coach

Speaking of reading between the lines, we come to Ivan Provorov’s exit interview.

Dating back to January, it’s been rumored and reported that Provorov isn’t exactly thrilled in Philadelphia, both with his usage under Tortorella (namely his decreasing power play time) and the Flyers’ on-ice struggles and embrace of a rebuilding strategy.

His comments on Friday did little to quell those rumors, even if Provorov did his best to be diplomatic.

When asked to evaluate his relationship with Torts, Provorov didn’t pretend that it was all sunshine and roses.

“I’m still the player, he’s still the coach,” he said. “Obviously, there’s things you’re not going to agree upon, but if both people put an effort to come to a solution, I think you can, and that’s how kind of our year went. We’re going to continue to keep getting on the same page. Obviously, there’s going to be things that come up that we probably are not going to agree on. But like I said, his job is to coach the best way that he can, and my job is to play the best way that I can.”

What about his openness to sticking around through a rebuild?

“That’s definitely not exactly what you want to hear because I feel like I came into a rebuild (in 2016-17), we had one good year, the bubble year that was also kind of paused. Then after that, things went sideways, and we tried to quick fix that didn’t work. I wouldn’t say it’s the most positive news you can hear, but there’s a bright future here, and there’s a lot of great players that can keep growing. Obviously, it depends on how quick everybody gets better and how quickly the team game gets better. I think that’s what determines the length of the rebuild.”

Provorov didn’t straight up say that he’d rather not be part of a long rebuilding process, just as he didn’t directly criticize Tortorella. But it’s not difficult to infer that — while I don’t believe Provorov has demanded a trade — he wouldn’t exactly shed tears if he was playing elsewhere soon.

7. Frost making progress with Torts?

Morgan Frost, on the other hand, very much wants to stay in Philadelphia. He just needed to convince a skeptical Tortorella that he was actually part of the solution.

Does he believe that his 32 points in his final 45 games won over his head coach?

“I’m not sure if it was expressed to me directly,” Frost said. “But I think I started to play more, and get more opportunities. So if I’m looking at it that way, maybe.”

It was a far cry from the first half of the season, when Frost spent extended stretches on the fourth line and was even scratched for a hometown game against the Leafs in Toronto.

“I think that first little bit was kind of tough for me,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I was on Torts’ good side. And for good reason, I don’t think I was playing very well on the ice.”

Now, it looks like Frost — a pending restricted free agent — is at least in the organization’s plans for 2023-24. But don’t expect Frost to rest on his laurels.

“(Tortorella) said it all along: he’s still always evaluating,” Frost said. “I think every day when you come to the rink, whether it’s practice or a game, you’re trying to prove yourself. That was kind of my mentality the whole year, right to the end — I was trying to try to prove myself and show what I can do. I don’t know if I talked to him as much kind of later in the year, so I’m not exactly sure where he stands in terms of me. But I think just personally, I was a lot happier with my second half than my first half. for sure.”

Travis Sanheim (Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)

8. Sanheim admits that Calgary scratching hit hard

Frost wasn’t the only Flyers player who Tortorella scratched for a game that had significant personal meaning. On Feb. 20, with his family and friends in attendance in his old junior hockey stomping grounds of Calgary, Travis Sanheim found out via text that he would be a healthy scratch.

It wasn’t a great feeling, Sanheim acknowledged Friday.

“The scratching I think obviously hurt me, and probably something I wasn’t expecting,” he said. “Especially with where it was. I think there’s certain games throughout a year, it gets long and you circle some dates that are meaningful to you. Obviously playing in that building for three years and having a lot of great memories there, think it means a lot to play there. Not getting the chance obviously hurt.”

It wouldn’t be the last time that the two would clash, with Tortorella sitting Sanheim for the second period against Tampa Bay two weeks later and challenging him (and Joel Farabee) with pointed postgame comments. But over the final few weeks of the season, the two seemed to put their differences aside, likely in part because both realize that the other isn’t leaving Philadelphia anytime soon. Sanheim delivered some of his better games in months, and finished the season with at least some momentum and a belief that he and Tortorella can coexist. Even if he still doesn’t fully understand why he was scratched in Calgary.

“Yeah. Still haven’t figured out why,” he said. “But it’s in the past. I’m over that. We’ve moved on. I think our relationship is just fine. I think we understand each other, and I think he’s got a better understanding of my game now. I’ve got a better understanding of what he expects of me.”

9. Understanding Tortorella’s communication strategy

Sanheim wasn’t the only player on Friday to note that one-on-one communication with Tortorella this season was surprisingly limited.

“Yeah, to be honest, we didn’t have that many conversations, probably a couple here and there, just about little things throughout the year on the road,” Scott Laughton said.

“To be honest, we didn’t really talk, we just kind of understood each other, and I knew what he expected for me,” Konecny echoed.

When Tortorella was hired, communication was supposed to be one of his strong suits. So what explains the apparent lack of direct conversations between player and coach in many cases?

Tortorella’s recent interview with Ashlyn Sullivan of NBC Sports Philadelphia provides some insight.

“I don’t want to let a player go home at night not knowing where he stands,” Tortorella said in the interview. “And that could be really good, and it may not be some things that he wants to hear, but at least he knows where he stands. That’s my whole philosophy. And it’s important. But it’s not done one-on-one. It’s done in an open platform, in a locker room, in front of everybody. Because I think we’re a family in there, we’re together. And I think we need to address everything right in that locker room, instead of me running around 10 different ways from Sunday going to each player. Everybody’s gonna know where they’re gonna stand right there.”

In other words, Tortorella’s view of coach-to-player communication is that it is best delivered in group settings, not in one-on-one meetings. That’s not to say one-on-one conversations don’t happen — Konecny noted that after he was sat for two periods in an early-season game versus San Jose, he sought out Tortorella and had a talk with him; he acknowledged it served as something of a turning point for him. But Tortorella’s preferred communication style isn’t person-to-person. It’s person-to-people.

10. Laczynski not giving up on winning Torts over

One player who has yet to break through Torts’ skepticism? Tanner Laczynski, who finished the season with just four points in 32 games.

Laczynski still has supporters in the front office, and one more year left on his contract. Still, he won’t stick in Philadelphia much longer if he doesn’t win over Tortorella. And he’s fully aware of it.

“I mean, obviously, it was kind of a crap year for me,” he said. “But I think this is just an opportunity. I’ve got another year here. I have an entire summer to try and prepare again. That’s my motivation, to prove to him next year, what I’m capable of, what I know I’m capable of. So I think I just use this as fire for the summer.”

Laczynski noted that in 2022-23, he believed he started to lose himself as a player, particularly in terms of his offensive aggressiveness. His focus is the return to his foundations this summer, and rebuild his game from the roots.

Is he worried that Tortorella might not give him a fair shake at next year’s camp, given his not-so-complimentary comments about him during the stretch run?

“No. I mean, everyone has opinions, you know?” he said. “But I think if I come out and I have a good camp, and they’re evaluating the camp … obviously, they’re gonna evaluate some of last year. That’s even more of why I gotta come next year and prove to him and to the organization that I’m worth keeping, I’m worth having around.”

Assorted observations

1. Kevin Hayes echoed his comments to The Athletic last week, strongly implying that he expects his time in Philadelphia has come to an end. “Their decisions have probably already been made,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll find out around the draft.”

2. Farabee will spend the bulk of the summer in Philadelphia, training for 2023-24. He plans to be back by July 4 and remain until the start of camp.

3. Be careful what you say on Twitter about Farabee, by the way. “I read a lot of stuff on Twitter and things like that,” Farabee said. “And, you know, a lot of people are writing us off again already.”

4. Konecny noted that he spent about half his games skating on a line with Noah Cates, and he raved about the rookie, noting how much Cates reminds him of Couturier. Not a bad comparable.

5. Rasmus Ristolainen evaluated his season as a tale of two halves. “First half was pretty s— bad,” he let slip before stopping himself from dropping further profanities. “But probably around after the Christmas break, I started to get going.”

6. Wade Allison was asked about Tortorella’s infamous “he’s always hurt” media availability regarding the player in March, and whether it bothered him. “It’s whatever,” Allison said. “It’s fine. I’m doing my best to be healthy. I can’t control injuries.”

7. With the news that all members of the 2018 Canadian world juniors team would be ineligible for the World Championships this spring due to the continuing investigation into the alleged sexual assault of a woman in a hotel room by members of the team, Carter Hart — who was on the team — was asked if he was willing to comment. Hart’s response was nearly identical to what he said at the start of training camp when asked about the situation. “I can’t talk about it right now,” he said. “I wish I could, but not until it’s over.”

8. Cam York chuckled that he’s now played more games on the right side at the NHL level than his preferred, natural left side. “I definitely feel more comfortable. I feel like there’s things I struggle with on the right side still, but from where I was at the beginning of last year to where I am now, I feel like I’ve come a long way,” he said.

9. Sanheim recalled that during his healthy scratch game in Calgary, he rushed down from the press box to the locker room to check on Konecny, who had suffered the injury that would knock him out for over a month. Just another example of their strong friendship.

10. To a man, the players praised Braun, who all but officially announced his retirement from hockey on Thursday. Braun was not available at exit interviews, but he certainly made his mark on the Flyers as a trusted friend and valued teammate.

(Photo of Morgan Frost, Kevin Hayes, Tony DeAngelo and James van Riemsdyk: Len Redkoles / NHLI via Getty Images)

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