NICK COUSINS laughed.
Surely, the Flyers' third-round pick in 2011 thought his new coach was joking when Sheldon Keefe challenged him in December to lead the OHL in scoring this season.
It was Keefe's first day on the job as coach of the OHL's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, brought in to replace Mike Stapleton midway through the season. His first objective was to meet with Cousins, a player he inherited with plenty of potential but a poor reputation.
"He was a guy I'd heard a lot about, from a lot of different people," Keefe said. "Frankly, not a lot of it was positive."
Cousins, 19, earned a rap as one of the OHL's troublemakers the wrong way: a talented but mouthy diva with a soiled off-ice history who wasn't interested in dropping the gloves to settle scores.
"I was the first one to meet with him here," Cousins said. "He challenged me to change. I looked at the stats, and I was 20 points back of the league leaders. I told him, 'We'll see.' I guess I've even surprised myself."
When Flyers director of development Ian Laperriere met with Cousins last week in their usual spot - a Boston Pizza restaurant in the small town on the Ontario border with Michigan's Upper Peninsula - Cousins was atop the OHL scoring chart with 84 points in 54 games. He now remains on top with an added 88 points in 55 games.
Only three Flyers draft picks - Bobby Clarke (1967-68), Mel Bridgman (1974-75) and Brian Propp (1977-78, 1978-79) - have ever led a major junior league in scoring. All three of those players did it in the WHL, supposedly considered an inferior offensive league to the OHL.
"He looked at me sideways," Keefe, 32, a former NHLer and potential future NHL coach, said in a telephone interview last week. "I asked him to be better, to be the leader of this team, and to be an all-around player. He's bought in and worked extremely hard.
"He's had the right attitude and approach. He's brought a willingness to be taught and an acceptance of responsibility."
Cousins' conversation with Keefe was another eye-opener in a series of wake-up calls that included being left off the OHL's Super Series team against Russia, Team Canada's World Junior tryout roster and, most important, a spot in Flyers training camp.
Cousins watched the Flyers eagerly from afar, while Scott Laughton - a player a year younger with inferior OHL offensive numbers - earned a five-game run in the NHL. Laughton, 18, was sent back to Oshawa on Jan. 27. His spot very easily could have belonged to Cousins.
"It showed me that good defensive players will be relied upon," Cousins said. "It was obviously a wake-up call to me, something that I can use as motivation to become a better player."
Many wondered whether Cousins was snubbed from the Super Series and Team Canada for his alleged off-ice transgressions. Cousins and two teammates were arrested on Aug. 25 for having sexual intercourse with an unnamed woman, known to the players, against her will. Prosecutors have not dropped the charges, which are still pending in court. Cousins attended counseling before being reinstated by the Greyhounds.
The embarrassing situation gave Cousins, the Greyhounds and the Flyers a collective black eye. It's an image that he's still trying to shed.
"At the pro level, teams expect you to be an adult and act like one," Laperriere said. "He's got a good heart . . . Let's be honest, stuff like that has been happening forever. You can't get away with anything now. He can't put himself in those situations.
"He's been in trouble with this stuff, but hopefully that's all going to go away. Part of my job is telling him that he needs to learn from that. You need to be careful what you're doing. All of our prospects need to learn from his situation."
OHL officials denied Cousins was kept off the Super Series team because of his legal situation. But both Laperriere and Keefe believe his baggage, coupled with his defensive liabilities, made him an easy player to deny.
"He was easy to expose, playing against really complete players," Keefe said. "He plays against the top players every night."
Keefe and the Flyers have noticed a marked improvement in all facets of Cousins' game, particularly defensively, over the last 3 months.
"Sean Couturier didn't make our team last year because he can put up numbers," Laperriere said. "He was so responsible defensively that we couldn't send him down. Laughton did the same thing. If you want to play in the top six, you need to put up numbers every single night. If you look around this room, I don't know where Nick Cousins would play. I don't see him beating anyone in the top six right now.
"There's going to be third- and fourth-line spots open for him. I think he's realizing that now. He's going to need to find another part of our game. Everyone can tell him, but no one can teach him that."
With the puck, Cousins doesn't need to change much. He is a pure talent, using his vision to find seams on the ice that others his age don't see.
"I'd say his stats are quite accurate in terms of the player he is, his playmaking in particular," Keefe said. "He's not a sniper, he's not going to blow a puck by a goaltender. The puck seems to find him. He rolls off pressure so easily. He makes something out of nothing."
Laperriere says Cousins has a bit of Flyer in him. He doesn't play an overly physical game but he drives opponents to the brink of insanity nightly, both with his puck control and mouth.
"He gets under everyone's skin," Laperriere said. "I've probably seen him 15 to 20 times in the last 2 years - he's the kid I've seen the most - and almost every game I've been to, somebody takes a run at him at the end of the game, because they've had enough. I like that, because he always does the right thing for his team."
Laperriere noted Keefe has "pressed different buttons" with Cousins to get the most out of him.
"It's all up to him," Laperriere said when asked whether Cousins is an NHL player. "He has all of the skills in the world. He needs to make that choice."
In many ways, Keefe is the perfect vehicle to help Cousins get to Philadelphia. Keefe was a former OHL bad boy himself, managed by former coach and agent David Frost, the alleged target of a murder-for-hire scheme that involved former NHLer Mike Danton. He's spent the better part of the last decade reshaping his image.
Keefe was also a talented scorer in junior (121 points in 1999-2000 with Barrie), but his NHL career flamed out after only 125 games. Cousins has been given "all the freedom in the world" to avoid that same fate, but Keefe said he rides Cousins after every shift in which he strays to the wrong side of the puck.
"It's a big challenge," Keefe said. "He's still got a ways to go. But it's nice to see him take off."
Scott Hartnell, who has missed the last 10 games since fracturing his big toe on Jan. 22, will visit a foot specialist on Friday for clearance to begin skating. With the doctor's permission, Hartnell could be back as soon as Wednesday in Pittsburgh. He accompanied the Flyers on their Canadian road trip and exercised using a stationary bike . . . The Flyers traveled back from Winnipeg on Wednesday and did not practice. They'll practice Thursday before busing to New Jersey.