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Sean Couturier is the Newest Member of John Tortorella’s Doghouse

(Heather Barry Images, LLC)

It was bound to happen at some point, but Philadelphia Flyers head coach John Tortorella has finally made Sean Couturier a healthy scratch.

After yet another defeat on Saturday night, Tortorella had five lines running though practice on Monday morning and with the captain skating between Cam Atkinson and Denis Gurianov, they looked to be the odd men out ahead of Tuesday’s rematch against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Those thoughts – and maybe fears – were confirmed Tuesday morning when Couturier remained on the ice after practice with press box veterans Atkinson and Gurianov as they worked with backup goaltender Felix Sandström. However, we know how Tortorella operates and if you’re consistently struggling, you’re going to feel his wrath and Couturier has been ice cold for well over 20 games.

Tortorella first shrunk his ice-time before demoting him to the fourth line. He played just about 11 minutes in Saturday’s defeat against the Boston Bruins, a game in which they could have used his offensive prowess late in the contest when they were down by 2 goals – and again after Joel Farabee cut the deficit to just 1.

Dating back to the 20th of January, Couturier has just 1 goal and 5 points in 23 games and has sported a minus-18 rating with an ATOI just slightly above 16 minutes. That’s a far cry from his previous 41 games where he scored 10 goals and 30 points to go along with a team-leading plus-12 rating and 20 minutes of ice time per game.

The biggest issue right now, with this situation specifically, is that head coach and player are on two very different wavelengths. Tortorella has called his play out, has called him out personally, but surprisingly decided not to make a comment earlier today. It’s always how he’s operated, and we’ve seen it firsthand in his short tenure with players like Kevin Hayes and Tony DeAngelo. He isn’t going to pick on guys like Couturier without any warrant but there’s also a fine line to teeter.

Yes, offensively he has struggled mightily, but his defensive game hasn’t gone anywhere, he’s still winning face-offs at an elite rate, and with the wingers he’s being given he’s actually done a half-decent job. Nevertheless, accountability is what he’s been preaching since day 1 so this move shouldn’t come as a surprise even though the club is in a thick of a playoff race and needs all hands on deck to get through this gauntlet.

Couturier’s post-morning skate comments really make it seem like there’s a real disparity between coach and player though. We know from the past that Tortorella has an open-door policy and relishes in the idea of his own players coming to him first to vent their issues. Morgan Frost did it earlier this year, Joel Farabee has had conversations as well, but it sounds like Couturier has not:

Is this testing your frustration?

“Definitely, like I said, I can control what I can control, it is what it is, and we move on.”

Have you spoken with Tortorella about this or not?

“Somewhat but doesn’t matter honestly what I think, gotta leave my ego aside, I guess, and hopefully the team finds a way to get a win here today and I can get back into it soon.

Last guy off the ice and we know you’re a hard worker but how much is this driving you even more?

“It’s tough, I feel like I’ve been putting the work in for awhile, I know I’ve been struggling trying to work out my game, so definitely frustrated the way Ive been treated around lately but it is what it is.

Has he given you any direction on what he wants to see from you or what you need to do to get back in the lineup/more minutes?

“Not really, I’ve gotten the same answers as you guys, just need to see more, still looking to find out what that is but I’m trying every game, it’s not like I’m. just sitting around or doing nothing. Like I said yesterday, I felt the last couple of games, limited ice-time and opportunities I’ve been getting, been doing alright, but I guess we’re going with the best lineup available tonight to get the win, it is what it is.”

What made things even ore concerning was that Tortorella did not meet with the media today and instead it was assistant coach Rocky Thompson who was answering questions. When asked about the decision and what went behind it, Thompson said exactly what we would expect from an assistant coach who is stuck in a pickle:

“I think that’s more of a question for Torts and how Torts manages his minutes,” Thompson said Tuesday. “I can’t get into the mind of our head coach that way. I think Coots has done a good job, he works extremely hard in practice and he’s trying to get himself better, without a doubt.”

From Couturier’s comments you can hear the frustration and the anger from a seasoned veteran. He obviously had to overcome 2 back surgeries and stepped onto the ice for the first time in nearly 2 calendar years and he did so with flying colours to start the 2023-24 campaign. However, there doesn’t seem to be much dialogue between coach and captain and it by the looks of things, it might fall onto Couturier to get the ball rolling.

It definitely does not help that this move has come right before a game against a club that has beaten you 8 straight times dating back to 2019 – but also trampling you 6-2 just last week. Compared to Tortorella’s other scratches, Couturier has played well off the puck, especially in recent games, but hopefully this is just him trying to light a spark, rather than an actual controversy brewing,

The Flyers had no plans on naming a captain, which made the decision in mid-February that much more surprising. His game completely fell off after that, which could be just a coincidence, but 0 goals and 3 points with a minus-13 rating in 14 games to go along with just 14:31 ATOI is alarming. His only goal in the last 27 games was against the Seattle Kraken when he was visibly expressive in his celebration – something we very rarely see from the composed veteran.

After the game, Couturier talked about why Tortorella gave him an earful on the bench.

“I feel both goals were kind of my guy,” he said. “I got a little too excited on the first one…it was a bad judgement call, then my guy scores. The second one, same thing, it was kind of at my feet. I feel all night it was one of those games for me personally where…it was just kind of in my feet, fighting it a little bit. I’m just glad I could get that one back in the third.”

Tortorella then talked about the celebration and what he thought went behind it.

“Oh, that was an ‘eff you!’ to me, yeah,” he laughed, brandishing his middle finger as he said it. “I’m sure it was. So be it. That’s part of it. That’s what I like about him. He’s a crusty old pro. He’s a huge part of this.”

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and how he’s handled this year after taking two years off,” he said. “But there are no free passes. We need him terribly, in games, to be consistent. He’s not allowed to have a bad night or take a night off. He’s not allowed. We’re just not good enough for him to be average.”

It’s that final quote that really resonates now because that’s when his ice-time really shrunk, and his game really took a nose-dive. He’s averaged 14:35 TOI since and is a minus-14 rating. You go back to the previous 14 games and he averaged 2o:08 with 8 points to his name. You dig even further and you can see that in the midst of a 7-game goal-drought, Couturier still played his normal minutes.

He was injured near the end of the Maple Leafs game on the 15th of February – his first game as captain – but he’s only had one game where his ice time surpassed 16:30 minutes. If only we knew that those comments and that goal against the Kraken was a prelude of things to come.

There’s also a very good possibility that this is just a one-game stint, but for the time being, it is still very shocking even if we kind of knew it was on the horizon.

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