At this time last year, Sean Couturier wasn’t on any Flyer fan’s radar. He was a can’t miss prospect, top-5 projected overall pick who was fixed to go to one of the lesser teams in the league and help give them instant production from a stud, 6-4 two-way center. After the two trades that shook the hockey world and Flyer nation sending away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter---the Flyers had netted themselves Columbus's first round pick at eighth overall and suddenly some Flyers fans picked up Sean Couturier on their radar.
What those fans found is that Sean Couturier was coming off of his second consecutive 96 point season, as he was the first player to lead the QMJHL in scoring as a 17 year old since that (insert negative adjective her) Sidney (insert other adjective here) Crosby. Looking just at points he didn’t improve from his 17-year-old year to his 18-year-old year, which is a red flag, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Scooter played in all 68 games as a 17 while he only played 58 games the following year due to a bout with Mono. Even though he only missed 10 games, anyone who’s known anyone with mono knows about the weight loss and fatigue that come with the sickness, so without question there were some lingering effects once he returned.
So without the “improvement” expected from the consensus (maybe not 100% consensus, but the majority of mock drafts had him at number one before the year) number one overall pick, he somehow fell down the draft board to the 5th overall range. Great seasons from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Gabriel Landeskog, and a great playoffs Jonathan Huberdeau (Memorial Cup MVP) in addition to top defensive prospect Adam Larsson (already playing in one of the top Euro leagues) landed Scooter at about the fifth spot in most mock drafts come last June.
Lets fast forward to the draft and the names started being called. We all knew the Flyers were targeting a defender given Kimmo Timonen and Chris Pronger’s age, and there were a few great looking prospects looking to be in the Flyers range including towering Dougie Hamilton and puck mover Ryan Murphy. RNH was the consensus #1, Landeskog, Huberdau and Larsson followed. The Islanders, Senators and Jets were all up before the Flyers and all were thought to be considering taking centers. All three took centers, but for whatever reason, they all passed up on Scooter. Yes we wanted a blue-liner, but Paul Holmgren was given a gift from five Eastern Conference teams (FLA, NJ, NYI, OTT, WIN) in the form of the toothless 18-year-old son of an NHLer: Sean Couturier.
We knew he was a great 2-way guy that could potentially be the shut down guy that Mike Richards was last year, but no one expected him to make the Flyers in his first year in the organization given the depth the Flyers had at center: Claude Giroux, Daniel Briere, Braydon Schenn and Blair Betts were all penciled in to be the four centers. We would be able to keep Scooter in juniors, give him valuable experience with all of the playing time he’d get, let him play in the World Junior Classic, and then at the end of the year get him on the Phantoms and then the Flyers next year... or so we thought.
Scooter played so well in camp, he forced the Flyers hand in cutting Blair Betts---clearing the way for Sean to be the Flyers 4th line center. When it became evident that this was going to be the case there was a lot of outrage as to why we would “waste” a year of Scooter’s 3-year entry level deal. (A draftee’s contract doesn’t start until he plays an NHL or AHL season, so if Sean were to play in juniors this year, his first year of his deal wouldn’t start until the 12-13 season). The thought process was why would we want to burn a year of his cheap contract to play limited minutes in a limited role---a role that no 18-year-old rookie has truly succeeded in except Jordan Stall: a defensive role.
As the season went on people started to realize how mature this kid was and that maybe he would have the makeup to succeed as a highly touted prospect taking a backseat on the scoresheet to excel in the parts the game usually reserved for the grizzly vets. He didn’t necessarily play poorly in the offensive zone, it just wasn’t his role. In 77 games he had 27 points (13 G, 14 A)---ranking 9th among rookies. He took advantage of some increased playing time during a stretch of 14 games where he had 11 points (including a 5 game goal scoring streak) while filling in on the top-9 for injured players. But like we’ve said before, Scooter wasn’t here for offense.
Of all rookies who took 100 ES faceoffs, Scooter ranked 4th at 47%. His 130 short handed faceoffs taken lead all rookies (also at 47%) and was 9 more than the second place guy. While were talking about shorthanded stats, Scooter lead all rookies who played in at least 30 games with 2:41 SH TOI/G (Matt Read was 2nd at 2:35, no one else had over 2:04). His two shorthanded goals were tied for 2nd among rookies and was one of only 6 to score one.
Taking a look at the advanced statistics---Couturier continues to excel. Facing the 4th toughest competition on the team (of 15 forwards who played 20 games) with the 11th best teammates (of 15) and starting in his offensive zone only 40.3% of the time (lowest on the team) his CorsiRel was a -3.4---very acceptable given his ridiculously hard deployments. He also played on the PK second most on the team, behind only Max Talbot. Couturier played 40.9% of his even strength minutes with Max Talbot, more than any other forward. Who did he play with second most? The skillful Zac Rinaldo--- 36.4%. Behindthenet.ca also calculates the top 10 opponents Scooter played against most. Some of the ten guys: (1) Malkin, (3) Tavares, (4) Neal, (10) Kovalchuk. Those guys are pretty good.
The regular season is a marathon, we all know that. However, the playoffs are a ‘what have you done for me lately’ kind of place. Every move and every decision is placed under the microscope for further review. The matchup game turns into a chess match and each coach has certain match-ups he favors and doesn’t favor. Peter Laviolette has chosen to match Scooter up against league MVP Evgeni Malkin in a checking role. How has he done? Toughest competition (of 12 forwards), 4th worst teammates, with an outrageous 19.2% offensive zone start % (yes, he has started in his own zone 80% of the time). In those situations (easilly the toughest of any Flyer) he’s managed to drive the play forward to the tune of a 18.7 CorsiRel---a truly remarkable feat considering he’s playing the vast majority of his minutes against LEAGUE MVP Evgeni Malkin. Yes, three games is a small sample size, but the beauty of Coots’ game is it’s consistency. He rarely has a bad game, he rarely turns the puck over, he’s always in position, and he’s always one step ahead of the play. He’s held Malkin to zero goals (he had 50 this year if you didn’t know) while scoring his own hat trick (we won’t even go there it was just too awesome)!
Sean Couturier has shown tremendous composure, poise, and hockey awareness throughout this season. He’s been given an unprecedented role and has blown away expectations. He’s the prototypical Flyer---missing teeth and all---and hopefully will never wear another uniform. After the season there will be second guessing as to certain managerial moves made by the front office---but I can guarantee you there will be no issues with “wasting” a year of Couturier’s contract for his absolutely stellar play this year. He may not have put up the point production of the Calder candidates but night in and night out he was one of the better Flyers contributing in every zone. He easily brought in enough value to justify his minuscule 1.35 million dollar contract and has turned into one of those Flyer kids who we all just know is destined for great things.
The coolest thing about it? He’s only 19. He hasn’t even scratched the surface of the player that Scooter will be in the years to come.