John Tortorella’s former players discuss where his relationship with Flyers’ Couturier might go from here

Jody Shelley not only played for John Tortorella for a brief time in the 2009-10 season with the New York Rangers, but the NHL forward-turned-analyst had a front-row seat for the coach’s time in Columbus, too. He has as unique of a perspective as anyone on what makes Tortorella tick.

And, even Shelley’s initial reaction to Tortorella scratching newly minted captain Sean Couturier for two games this week was, “Wow.”

But, he added, he figures that Tortorella “knows what (the Flyers) need. Of course it gets everybody’s attention, and of course Couturier is unhappy, but that’s one thing with Torts, he has an expectation and a level, that there’s some players that to this day still don’t understand. But he’s a team-first guy. It’s not about what we think on the outside.”

Ryan Callahan, who played for Tortorella’s Rangers for five seasons from 2008-09 through 2012-13 and is now an analyst with ESPN, was less surprised.

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t think too much of it at the time,” Callahan said. “I look at it and I see Torts, and that’s always how he’s been. If he believes a player needs to sit out or a player needs to get benched in a game or minutes need to come down, no matter who that player is, he holds everyone accountable on the same level. As a former player and someone who played for him, I can respect that.”

One of the more common refrains about Tortorella’s coaching style, from both his former and current players, is that they always know where they stand with him. Even if they might disagree on his assessment of their play, they at least have an idea of what he’d like them to do better.

That doesn’t mean that’s true for every player that’s ever skated a shift for him, though.

“I would say 95 percent of players that I played with in New York when Torts was there knew exactly what was happening, where they stood, if they were good, if they were bad, or why they were getting their ice time cut,” said Martin Biron, who was with the Rangers under Tortorella for two seasons and overlapped with him an an AHL player in Rochester, N.Y., too. “But, there’s always the five percent. There’s always one or two players that the communication wasn’t the same, for whatever reason.”

Might Couturier, who voiced his displeasure with what he perceived as a lack of communication from the coach’s office, be among that five percent?

If so, that could present a problem. After all, the Flyers have said over and over this season that their renewed culture is the foundation of their rebuild. General manager Daniel Briere reiterated that in his trade-deadline moves and in his comments afterward. A rift between the coach and the captain risks upsetting that.

Shelley, though, would be more concerned about that if the Flyers were a more veteran group.

“When I saw (the Flyers) earlier this year, they love what they’re doing, they love how hard they work, they love how they play, they love how Torts controls the room,” Shelley said. “I don’t think (it’s a risk) in this situation. I think if you have more of a veteran, established group, then you could lose the room quickly. … There is a buy-in there. That’s something that I think Torts is really good at, is recognizing that.”

Tortorella has made it clear that he doesn’t want to publicly get too deep into the reasons why Couturier came out of the lineup for Tuesday’s game against Toronto. It was assistant coach Rocky Thompson who spoke with the media on Tuesday morning, and after the game, Tortorella plainly stated that he only wished to discuss the team’s vital 4-3 win. Couturier also sat out Thursday’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina, and when asked about Couturier after the morning skate, Tortorella quickly said: “I’m not talking about Sean.”

Still, according to a source briefed on the situation, the coaching staff did sit down with Couturier on Wednesday to review what he could do better in both the defensive and offensive zones. There weren’t any glaring mistakes to review, the source said, but there was at least a video session to potentially clarify to the captain their reasons for pulling him.

What sparked that clarification? That’s impossible to say, at least now, because Tortorella has remained mum. But Callahan pointed out that when it comes to Tortorella, there’s sometimes there’s a method to generating that kind of disharmony.

“I’m surprised that (Couturier) doesn’t know why (he was scratched), just from my experience with Torts,” he said. “Maybe Torts wants him to come in and initiate the conversation. Sometimes he likes to get a little bit of a friction between him and the player, and a little bit of conflict, a back and forth. Which I think is healthy.”

Healthy? How?

“I think as a player, you have that opportunity to vent how you feel,” Callahan continued. “Not a lot of coaches will sit and listen to you bitch at them, what you’re thinking or what you dislike. Torts is the kind of guy that will have that conversation with you, agree or disagree — and then he parks it.”

Said Shelley: “His door is always open. That’s what he says. Now, I think that that’s what he relies on, is, don’t drive home wondering why your ice time is going down. I think it’s because (he wants you to) get your feet in there and challenge him. I think he likes that.”

Perhaps the oddest aspect of Couturier being a healthy scratch in each of the last two games is that the player’s role started diminishing almost as soon as the “C” was stitched to his sweater for a game in Toronto on Feb. 15.

Couturier played just 12:53 that night — nearly six minutes below his season average, and a then-season low. In fact, Couturier has eclipsed 17 minutes in a game just once since then, the Flyers’ impressive 2-1 win in Florida on March 7 in which Couturier had a solid night.

What will be especially intriguing is what kind of role Couturier will play when he does re-enter the lineup, whenever that might be. In the 14 games Couturier played after he was named captain, he started the game on a new line in 11 of those games — not ideal when trying to develop chemistry with teammates, and not a great look for Tortorella, either, considering the team went just 5-7-2 over that stretch.

A similar stretch over the final few weeks could cost them a playoff spot. At some point, probably sooner than later, they’re likely going to need Couturier to find the level he was at over the first half, when he looked like his former Selke Trophy-winning self.

Perhaps that’s Tortorella’s objective in all this, to simply light a fire under Couturier because of how valuable he is to the group when he’s at his best. After all, Tortorella was the biggest proponent of Couturier getting the captaincy in the first place.

“I know guys that have played for him have different opinions, but there’s another level of leadership, and Torts is going to get it out of him,” Shelley said. “That might be a bold thing to say from where I sit, but that’s how I feel about it.

“I think leadership is something that we all think we have figured out, but then there’s another level. Challenge the coach. I think Torts would love it.”

(Photo of Sean Couturier: Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

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