It is impossible to be a Flyers fan and be impartial at the mention of Sean Couturier. Some see a disappointing former 1st-round pick–slow, and an offensive black hole. “Sure, he’s a good defensive center, but a 3C at best,” they say.
Others see a guy who controls the game at 5v5 better than any other Flyer. If this is true, the offense will come, or at worst, he is a perfectly serviceable 2C.
Given these tensions, I won’t hide my bias. Count me in the second group. After 2015-16, I wrote that Couturier had a breakout season that no one noticed. Most didn’t look past his total of 39 points, which felt like more of the same from a defensive center. That perspective, however, failed to consider that he only played 63 games that season, and that his shot metrics (or “play-driving” if you prefer) took a huge leap that season.
At the time I predicted Couturier would easily set a new career high in points in 2016-17. Well, that didn’t happen. This was largely due to injury, but for most of the season the production was again not there anyway.
But then there was the way Couturier finished the season. Coots finished with 17 points in his final 19 games, looking like a different player on the ice and driving the net. A look at these advanced stats, plus this strong finish, and I couldn’t see any other conclusion than that Couturier has been, hands-down, the Flyers’ best 5v5 player in the 2 years of Hakstol’s regime.
This form has carried over into this season. While fans pile on Hakstol for many of his personnel decisions, he might have struck gold promoting Couturier to the first line with Giroux on his wing. This expensive line didn’t immediately impress me this season, but they’ve been gaining steam are currently the second-highest scoring combo in the NHL per corsica.hockey.
Again, many fans might overlook Couturier and give much of the credit to rejuvenated performances from stars Voracek and Giroux. On the other hand, there is a good chance that it is, in fact, Couturier re-juvenating Voracek and Giroux instead of the other way around.
Couturier currently has 7 goals and 12 points in 10 games, and is tied for the second in the league at +10 (don’t ask me how, but linemates Voracek and Giroux are only +3 and +2). His 6 5v5 goals are tied for 3rd in the league, in between Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Kane. Combine that with his finish last season, and Couturier has 29 points and is +28 in his last 29 games. With all of those points coming at even-strength, Couturier is the most productive 5v5 player in the entire NHL since last March (yes, 2 points ahead of McDavid and Kane).
Now 25, Couturier has grown up as an NHL player. First, he established himself as a top defensive-center in the NHL, before slowly turned into an elite “play-driver” in the last few seasons, and now the offense is coming. Furthermore, Couturier’s most effective offensive approach is now clear.
He should be going straight to the net, period. With the puck, he should be carrying it towards the net, not trying to dink and dunk passes from the wall. Without the puck, he should be using his size and positioning to finish plays form the doorstep. This latter gameplan is already working quite well this season, with Voracek more than happy to handle the puck carrying duties.
There is no flash to Couturier’s offense. He doesn’t dangle, snipe, or dish beautiful passes. All four of his goals this year were from the blue paint, and all along the ice. Many of his goals, in fact, barely even reached the back of net–he simply pushed the puck across the line more than shooting it.
This is likely the best version of Couturier we’re ever going to see. At 25, these should be his most productive seasons in the NHL. He’s proven that he doesn’t need to be flashy to score goals and points. If he just plays with confidence and goes to the net, there’s no reason he can’t be an elite play-driver and a first-line caliber scorer.
While it’s pretty safe to say Couturier’s not going to continue this pace and score 90 points and finish the season at +85, the “Couturier is just a 3C” argument should be considered dead. Hopefully, even those Flyers fans who were down on Couturier will be happy to have missed on this one, and appreciate the team’s blossoming power forward.
**Photo Credit Yong Kim – Philadelphia Inquirer**