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

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

As he looked to the bench during a timeout, the veteran players he might be inclined to call on in an alternate universe were nowhere to be found. 2020 Selke Trophy winner Sean Couturier hasn’t played this season after undergoing a second back surgery. Winger Cam Atkinson has also been out of the lineup all season long with an undisclosed upper-body injury. Tortorella’s go-to, penalty-killing duo of forward Scott Laughton and winger Travis Konecny ​​had each sustained recent injuries and were out of the game — Laughton (undisclosed) just moments earlier after taking a hard hit, and Konecny ​​(upper body) on Thursday against the Boston Bruins.

» READ MORE: 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 in the most critical moment of the game. Cates, the Flyers’ fifth-round pick in the 2017 draft, has played just 34 career NHL games. MacEwen and Brown were waiver claims in 2021 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 remaining in regulation, Canadiens center Nick Suzuki sent a cross-seam pass beneath the stick of Brown to winger Cole Caufield, whose one-timer soared past goalie Carter Hart. After the Flyers fell, 5-4, in a shootout, Tortorella noted that Cates had his stick out of position and that the onus was ultimately on Brown to stop that pass. However, Tortorella issued an increasingly common refrain to avoid piling on.

“They’re trying,” Tortorella said. “It’s not being lazy or not listening. They’re trying, but they’re just not ready to do it right now. I’ve got Catesy out there, a guy that’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 those three weren’t ready for the moment, who is? Or rather, who should be? The Flyers are depleted of veteran talent up front, players with the experience who can bear down and close out games. To Tortorella, team leaders would make big plays to settle down the bench in those tension-filled moments. Right now, the Flyers are lacking leadership.

But they still have a handful of seasoned players whom Tortorella passed over in that critical moment, most notably nine-year veteran Kevin Hayes. When asked postgame if he needs more from his healthy veterans, Tortorella let his personnel decisions speak for themselves.

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

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

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

After the loss in Montreal, Tortorella invoked that same message of addition by subtraction, saying that he was approaching the game from a big-picture standpoint.

“I’m a little frustrated tonight for them,” Tortorella said. “I’m not food. We don’t get the result. But I’m not even looking at that 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 in lockstep, jettisoning every underperforming player won’t be an option — or a straightforward one, at least — for the Flyers. Right now, some of their most inconsistent players are also their most handsomely paid. Hayes, demoted to the third line on Saturday, has the highest salary-cap hit among active forwards ($7.14 million) with four years remaining on his contract. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen has been relegated to the third pairing for 11 games since he returned from injury and has averaged a career-low 16 minutes, 15 seconds of ice time. He’s the second-highest-paid defenseman on the team this season ($5.1 million) with five years on his contract.

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

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