The Flyers’ loss is a reminder that the team is auditioning long-term players

The Flyers’ loss is a reminder that the team is auditioning long-term players

In the waning moments of regulation Saturday night against the Montreal Canadiens, Flyers coach John Tortorella selected three forwards he wanted on the ice in a six-on-five to protect a 4-3 lead team alongside top defensemen Ivan Provorov and Tony DeAngelo.

As he watched the bench during a timeout, the veteran players he might be inclined to call upon in an alternate universe were nowhere to be found. 2020 Selke Trophy winner Sean Couturier has not played this season after undergoing a second back surgery. Winger Cam Atkinson has also been out of the lineup for the entire season with an undisclosed upper-body injury. Tortorella’s main duo of forward Scott Laughton and wing Travis Konecny ​​had suffered recent injuries and were out of the game: Laughton (undisclosed) moments earlier after taking a hard hit, and Konecny ​​(upper body) on Thursday. against the Boston Bruins.

READ MORE: The Flyers’ losing streak extends to six games with a shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens

So Tortorella opted for an unlikely trio of winger Zack MacEwen, forward Patrick Brown and center Noah Cates at the game’s most critical moment. Cates, the Flyers’ fifth-round pick in the 2017 draft, has played just 34 career NHL games. MacEwen and Brown were 2021 waiver claims who played primarily on the fourth line last season and have moved up in the lineup with the Flyers injured up front.

With four seconds left in regulation, Canadiens center Nick Suzuki sent a cross under Brown’s stick to winger Cole Caufield, whose timer beat goaltender Carter Hart. After the Flyers fell, 5-4, in a shootout, Tortorella pointed out that Cates had the stick out of position and that it was ultimately Brown’s responsibility to stop that pass. However, Tortorella issued an increasingly common refrain to avoid crowding.

“They’re trying,” Tortorella said. “It’s not being lazy or not listening. They’re trying, but they’re not ready to do it right now. I’ve got Catesy, a guy who’s probably…I don’t know how many…games he’s played here. I’m putting him in situations that I didn’t even think about doing this year, but it is what it is.”

If these three weren’t ready by now, who is? Or rather, who should it be? The Flyers are depleted of veteran talent up front, experienced players who can hold and close out games. For Tortorella, the leaders of the team would make great plays to settle the bench in those moments of tension. Right now, the Flyers don’t have a lead.

But they still have a handful of experienced players that Tortorella passed over at that crunch time, most notably nine-year veteran Kevin Hayes. Asked after the game if he needs more of his healthy veterans, Tortorella let his personnel decisions speak for themselves.

READ MORE: Flyers unite in Boston, give Kevin Hayes’ nephew a day he’ll never forget

“You saw the guys I had on the ice at the end,” Tortorella said. “That tells you. I don’t need to answer that question. You can just tell by the people I’m putting on ice.”

Before the start of the season, Tortorella peeled back the layers during his tenure at the helm of the Columbus Blue Jackets in an interview with The Inquirer. He talked about the importance of “addition by subtraction” in building this team from eighth in the Metropolitan Division in 2015-16 to a playoff contender in four straight seasons. No one, not even 2010 fourth-round pick Ryan Johansen, who ended up packing for the Nashville Predators, was immune to Tortorella’s strategy. The coach added that elimination would likely happen in Philadelphia as well.

After the loss in Montreal, Tortorella invoked the same message of addition by subtraction, saying he was approaching the game from an overall standpoint.

“I’m a little frustrated tonight for them,” Tortorella said. “I’m not crazy. We’re not getting the result. But I’m not even looking at it right now. I’m trying to figure out who’s who and who do we really want to keep here?”

Even if Tortorella and general manager Chuck Fletcher are on board, jettisoning every underperforming player won’t be an option, or at least not an easy one, for the Flyers. At the moment, some of their most inconsistent players are also their highest paid. Hayes, demoted to the third line on Saturday, has the highest salary cap hit among active forwards ($7.14 million) with four years under his contract. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen has been relegated to the third pairing for 11 games since returning from injury and has averaged a career-low 16 minutes, 15 seconds of ice time. He is the team’s second-highest paid defenseman this season ($5.1 million) on a five-year contract.

Regardless, the Flyers’ latest loss served as a reminder of what this season is really about: It’s an audition to identify who should be part of the team’s future. Tortorella’s train will eventually leave the station, and some players will be left behind on the platform.

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