Having earned Tortorella’s trust, Flyers’ depth players are thriving in crucial situations

PHILADELPHIA — If Ryan Poehling was disappointed at all about his two-year contract extension getting publicly overshadowed by Owen Tippett’s eight-year extension on the same day, he wasn’t showing it on Thursday after the Flyers’ first morning skate at home in nearly two weeks.

The 25-year-old forward, set to earn $1.9 million next season and in 2025-26, is just delighted that he has a place to settle down and continue his NHL career after playing previously in Montreal and Pittsburgh.

“I was fired up,” Poehling said about re-signing on Jan. 26. “Played in this league for a little bit now, and I think just finding a home was my biggest thing. Came here and had the opportunity to do that and made the most of it so far. I love the city, I love the organization and, most importantly, I love my teammates. I couldn’t be happier to be here for another two years.”

On Thursday, in the Flyers’ 4-1 win over Winnipeg at Wells Fargo Center, their second straight coming out of the All-Star break, Poehling set the tone. He drove the net and set up linemate Tyson Foerster off the rush for an easy tap in at 3:37 of the first period, and early in the second period, short-handed, he grabbed a loose puck at the Flyers’ defensive zone blue line before whipping a wrist shot past Laurent Brossiot’s blocker side to increase the lead to 4-0. It was essentially the only highlight over the final two periods for the Flyers, who sagged for much of the second and third while enjoying a sizable lead.

Poehling, who now has six goals and 15 points in 47 games, thinks he still has room to grow.

“I’m trying to reach my full potential. I think there’s always more in me,” he said. His contract extension walks him into unrestricted free agency, so he has a chance to make much more if he does continue taking steps.

Considering how he’s progressed in his short time with the Flyers after they signed him to a one-year, $1.4 million contract on July 1, there’s reason to believe that could happen. While his ice time has fluctuated for much of the season, Poehling has been earning a bigger role as the days and weeks have gone by. He skated a season-high 21:12 in the Flyers’ loss to the Bruins on Jan. 27 in the final game before the break, followed up by 18:46 on Tuesday in Florida and another 18:37 on Thursday.

But it was when he was on the ice that was most notable against the Panthers. The Flyers were protecting a one-goal lead late when Poehling hopped over the boards for the final minute of regulation, and he remained on the ice as they closed it out.

That sort of thing reflects how much trust he’s earned from coach John Tortorella.

“The biggest thing for me is, he can skate,” Tortorella said. “That opens up more doors for him in today’s game. As (training) camp went on, and as I watched him play, I trusted him right away because he can think the game. End of the game against Florida I played him on (the) wing, I played him at center in some crucial spots — and he handles it.”

One of the primary narratives regarding the Flyers this season is that they lack high-end talent in the top six. And that’s still true, Travis Konecny’s 24 goals — including a Gordie Howe hat trick on Thursday — aside. It also may be why Tortorella said that coming out of the break that he was more concerned about the team’s offense than he was its defense, which he believed it would quickly fix (and, through two games, it has).

Getting Tippett back from injury has helped up front, but regular offensive contributions from guys like Poehling and Noah Cates would go a long way toward helping solidify the Flyers’ playoff position.

And Cates, too, has contributed in each of the last two wins, as he tries to put what was a miserable first half behind him. He scored the game-winning goal early in the third period on Tuesday, and assisted on the first goal on Thursday, drawing defenseman Dylan Samberg toward him in the Flyers’ defensive zone before slipping the puck to Foerster to start the rush.

Following Tuesday’s game, Tortorella mentioned that Cates, 25, who missed about two months with a broken foot, is “one of the guys that we have to get playing better.”

He expanded on that on Thursday morning.

“I think he’s been inconsistent. It’s been a different year for him,” Tortorella said. “Gets a ton of ice time last year. Different lineup. Has a major injury this year. I believe he’ll come around because I think he’s that conscientious. It’s just been a little bit of an up-and-down type season for him.”

Cates, who is averaging approximately four fewer minutes per game this season than last, indicated he’d like to start being more of a force on the forecheck, “creating turnovers and not (having) to go back to the d-zone. … That’s something I want to get back to, that I felt that I excelled at last year, and want to take another step. Maybe something I got away from earlier this year.”

The hope for Cates, who played such a strong 200-foot game last season, was that he would take a step offensively this season. There’s still time for that to happen with 30 games left to play. Through 30 games this season, he now has two goals and seven points, well off his pace of 38 points in 82 games in 2023-24.

“I’m still waiting to see if he can be consistent offensively,” Tortorella said. “I haven’t given up on that on him. … He’s still just a young man trying to grow. We’re going to play him, and see where it goes.”

It was notable that Tortorella had Poehling and Cates on the ice in the third period against the Jets while the Flyers had on a two-man advantage for about a minute, a reward for their respective games to that point. They nearly teamed up for another goal, too, but Cates couldn’t quite get a handle on a loose puck in front of the net.

“I was actually kind of laughing,” Poehling said of being on the ice on a five-on-three. “I’ve never practiced it or anything, but I thought we did a good job.”

Said Konecny: “Those guys have been playing awesome. They’re flying around out there, making things happen at both ends. They’re big pieces of the team.”

(Photo of Samuel Ersson and Ryan Poehling: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)

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