Philadelphia Flyers 2013-14 Year In Review: Sean Couturier

Bruce Bennett

Maybe no player saw more of an increased role under new head coach Craig Berube than young center Sean Couturier. Where does he stand after three years -- and where does he still need to improve to be the player we all hope and think he can be?

Sean Couturier

Age: 21 (December 7, 1992)
Contract Status: $1.75 million per year through 2016

2013-14 Stats

GP TOI/GP Goals Assists Points
82 19:05 13 26 39
Corsi For Corsi Rel Quality of Comp. (TOI%) Zone Start % PDO
49.1% (7) -1.2% (7) 29.2% (4) 41.8% (13) 99.5% (9)

(Numbers in parentheses indicate descending rank among regular Flyers players at his position, i.e. one of the team's top eight defensemen or top 13 forwards.)

Most frequent forward lines

Linemates Goals For% Corsi For% OZ/DZ%
Steve Downie, Matt Read 50.0% (+15 / -15) 51.6% 51.4%
Michael Raffl, Matt Read 25.0% (+1 / -3) 51.1% 52.4%
Matt Read, Vincent Lecavalier 60.0% (+3 / -2) 47.5% 52.4%

The expectations coming in

Much like it was for many Flyers players, the lockout-shortened 2013 season was typically seen as a disappointing one for then-20 year old center Sean Couturier. After he made his name known as a rookie with a strong showing against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2012 playoffs, many expected another big breakout for Couturier in his second year.

But we didn't quite get one.

That's not to say Couturier regressed or was a bad player or anything like that in 2013. Quite the contrary -- Eric T. noted about a month into the lockout-shortened season how Couturier's ability to play good defense and push play in the right direction despite being saddled with some really tough defensive assignments already stacked up with some of the NHL's best. Despite the phrase "sophomore slump" being thrown around from every corner of the hockey-covering world, there's no reasonable denial of the fact that Coots did a lot to help the team win in 2013.

However, there's also no denying that just about everyone was hoping for a little bit more out of Couturier offensively. And since that is, of course, the side of things that's easier to look at and critique for the average fan/analyst, it's easy to see why the reaction leaned this way, for a player who was a top-10 overall pick that was a high-scorer in juniors.

Couturier's point totals didn't move in the direction people were hoping, as his per-game number actually dropped slightly from 0.35 in 2011-12 to 0.33 in 2013 and his even-strength points per 60 minutes fell from 1.81 to 1.14. There was some poor luck involved there -- Couturier's individual shooting percentage more than cut in half, and his linemates typically shot a bit worse while he was on the ice.

Whatever the cause, though, one of the people who evidently didn't like the progress Couturier was making was unfortunately his head coach, Peter Laviolette, who responded to Couturier's offensive slump by repeatedly cutting down his minutes and dropping him to the team's fourth line. The young center had a particularly disappointing month of March, and when we looked into that a bit further, we found a pretty clear trend going on but were never quite sure what Laviolette was doing there:

Essentially -- and here's what the problem boils down to -- Laviolette would tend to make some fairly kneejerk decisions when it came to Couturier, whether it involved giving him less ice time (returning from the flu to be placed on the fourth line, getting benched after the bad Pittsburgh game) or giving him more (i.e. deciding he was worth top-9 minutes again immediately after breaking his scoring slump -- not that I necessarily have a problem with that, but the thought process troubles me a bit). And if you look at both of those, his drop in ice time almost perfectly coincided with his drop in shots on net. The guy's not gonna get chances if he doesn't play.

Regardless of what was seen as a "down year" for Couturier, the Flyers made it clear in the offseason that they valued him very much -- first by reportedly turning down requests to trade him for defensive/goaltending help, then by signing him to a two-year, $3.5-million contract extension in July.

New coach, longer leash?

The 2013-14 season began, and as you assuredly know by now, Laviolette was fired after three straight season-opening losses. At which point, we learned the following bit of information from ESPN's Pierre Lebrun:

I believe one factor in Laviolette's firing was an organizational concern that some young players on the team -- namely Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn -- were not developing properly, or as rapidly as anticipated. The Flyers traded away Carter and Richards because they truly believed Couturier and Schenn were capable of supporting star center Giroux as the team redeveloped its core. It just hasn't worked out that way so far.

So maybe we weren't the only ones noticing that there seemed to be a disconnect between Laviolette and his young center (or centers, plural, but we'll stay focused on Couturier for now). Fortunately, when Berube took over, that disconnect seemed to become a thing of the past rather quickly.

Couturier still got the same difficult, defensively-oriented minutes that he'd frequently see under Laviolette, and those would inevitably come with some lumps and slumps -- his season began with a 19-game goalless drought, and he suffered through another 16-game scoreless skid that spanned most of the post-Olympic stretch of the schedule.

Those were surely frustrating times for Couturier, who would often appear snakebitten and would get himself in decent position to put a chance in the net only to see it go wide or get foiled by the other team's goalie. Additionally, as smart and skilled as he is defensively, he'd occasionally find himself on the wrong side of a goal against -- the same way that literally any forward in hockey who had to face his kind of minutes would.

But while those slumps and slip-ups would sometimes lead to benchings under Laviolette, Berube seemed to take them in stride and realize that those were part of the job description for Coots. Couturier ended the year averaging just over 19 minutes of total ice time and around 13 and a half minutes at 5-on-5 per game -- both more than any forward on the Flyers not named Claude Giroux.

Think that's by design? It sure is. Consider this quote from Berube, in a completely unrelated piece by Anthony SanFilippo back in December -- emphasis mine:

"I like to keep the forwards to less than 20 minutes in a game as a rule, but I’ve always made exceptions for Giroux and [Sean] Couturier," Berube said.

Berube knows exactly what he's got in Couturier: a valuable two-way center who can be thrown onto the ice and be expected to hold his own in more or less any situation or circumstance, against any team or player.

Penalty killing and possession prowess

Couturier has long been a steady defensive contributor, but there were a few instances and times this year in which his skills really were on display and more noticeable than others.

The first and maybe even foremost (in my opinion) is on the penalty kill. I'll defer to our own Charlie O'Connor on this one, circa last January:

Couturier is the only player in the NHL to rank in the top-10 in shot prevention and shot generation at 4v5.

To put this in perspective, on a two-minute power play, opponents are taking on average less than one shot more than Philadelphia does with Couturier on the ice.

Flyers fans can stop waiting for Couturier to become a truly dominant penalty killing force. At age 21, it's already happening.

The Flyers have one of the best penalty kills in the league, a necessity given how much freaking time they spend killing penalties. Couturier -- who played more shorthanded ice time this year than any other forward in the NHL -- is the single biggest driving force behind that.

On top of this, we all know that Couturier's main linemate at 5-on-5 this year was Matt Read, as the two spent about three-quarters of Coots' ice time together. The third spot on their line, however, was a revolving door for much of the season, as the team broke training camp without an obvious answer there and experimented with a few guys in that spot.

Some of them saw more success than others. Steve Downie, as we discussed on Sunday, helped make Coots and Read look more impressive at 5-on-5 than they did at maybe any other time this season. The three of them were just outstanding together up until Downie's late-December injury, after which he was never really the same. Following a disastrous stint or two with Vincent Lecavalier in that spot, Michael Raffl ended up getting a chance there, making the line once again a solid combination on both sides of the ice.

Downie and Raffl, two solid-if-unspectacular players who generally are competent and smart at both ends of the ice (Downie's penchant for bad penalties notwithstanding), are two very different forwards stylistically. Downie's a grinder-type who relies on his physical play to try and win battles and create opportunities; Raffl, meanwhile, relies on his speed and hockey sense to be in the right place at the right time on all sides of the ice.

Both are fairly decent in what they try to do, but both do it very differently. The fact that Couturier and Read were able to be successful together with either one of them on their side leads me to think that they can be successful pretty much no matter who is with them, as long as he's a serviceable two-way player. Maybe that's the most encouraging news of all.

But what about scoring?

So the defense is there. The possession ability and talent to control play is there. But the easiest numbers for anyone to look at and defer to are the good old scoring numbers. And for Couturier, those still aren't quite where many want them to be, for a player who was a projected top-5 pick that posted back-to-back 96-point seasons in his last two years in junior hockey.

Some of this is circumstantial. No one short of the very best two-way forwards in the business (the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Anze Kopitar, and Patrice Bergeron come to mind) will end up putting a ton of points on the board while also being used as his team's defensive ace. Couturier's great, but he isn't there yet.

Couturier ended this season with 39 points, a step forward from his first two years but still a number befitting of a middle-six forward more than a guy with his obvious offensive talent. Much of this, as discussed, has to do with his usage and bad luck, but there are still areas in which we should reasonably expect more of him.

In particular, there's no doubt that he struggled in limited minutes on the second power play unit, which was a mess all-around this season. He never seemed comfortable there, and only managed to put up three power play points all season across 104 minutes at 5-on-4. Fixing the second power play needs to be something the coaches are working on this offseason. Whether it's work he needs to do or something the coaches need to figure out for him, Couturier has to improve as a part of that.

Regardless of how they do it, though, there are a handful of ways to get him more involved in the offense -- improving the power play, lightening his minutes a bit, trying to help him work through those minutes, etc. A lot of possibilities -- all of which will require some consideration from the coaching staff and some work from Couturier himself.

Preseason expectations

Let's check back on our season preview for Sean Couturier and see what we thought could happen with him this year.

Best case...

With a stronger fourth-line than usual and an ample number of penalty killers on the roster, Couturier's minutes both at even strength and otherwise get much easier. He finds chemistry on the third-line with Read and Cleary, and the three thrive as a strong two-way unit, shutting down the best players the opposition has to offer while evolving into a threat at the other end of the ice.

When Coots does put the puck on net, he scores more than the paltry 5.3 percent he did last year, and by developing further into a two-way threat, he quells the trade rumors and disappointment that surrounded him for much of last year.

Worst case...

The Cleary-Couturier-Read line is tasked with all the hard minutes, and not only does that further stagnate Couturier's chances of becoming a two-way player -- further frustrating fans into thinking he's worthless -- it also wears on the unit over the course of a long season. They're less effective in their own end as a result, Couturier is given fourth-line minutes at times again, and the trade rumors return.

[Ed. note: haha lol Dan Cleary remember that?]

Verdict

Couturier's minutes didn't get a whole lot easier, as there was still quite a bit asked of him and his line defensively. His shooting percentage did bump back up a bit, but at 7.9 percent it was still below where one would probably hope it would be, subjecting him to multiple lengthy goal-scoring droughts. In addition, Couturier's time on the second power play was disappointing more often than not, showing another department in which the young center still needs to develop his NHL game.

But even despite that, Couturier continued to prove that the defensive prowess he showed in his first two seasons in the NHL is for real -- and this time around, he did so with the consistent support of a coach who obviously believed in him and his skills. He finally appears to have found at least one stable linemate in Matt Read, and he showed enough success in spurts with some other guys (Downie, Raffl, even Jason Akeson) that can lead us to confidently believe that the Flyers can consistently piece together a really good two-way unit around him.

Furthermore, the Flyers' penalty kill -- one of the best in the league and one of the team's biggest drivers of success -- ran through him. There aren't many forwards in the league, if any at all that, have the influence with the man-down that Couturier does.

All in all, Sean Couturier will continue to be seen as frustrating by a lot of people until his offense truly comes around and shows up in the results side of things. Craig Berube and the Flyers have to figure out whether they want to continue totally burying him with defensive assignments (freeing up the rest of the forwards, but also making it that much less likely that the offense will actually come around) or if they want to lighten his load a bit moving forward, trying to give him more chances to score.

But Couturier's defensive ability alone make it clear that he's a crucial member of this team, one without whom their already-suspect defensive and possession talents would be that much worse. Berube has pretty much said that he's the most important non-Giroux forward on this team -- and with due respect to Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, and whoever else you could maybe think of, he might just be right.

***

Feel free to vote in the poll below to grade Sean Couturier's season on a scale from 1 to 10. Vote based on your expectations for him coming into the season -- i.e. 1 being "he was incredibly disappointing and I want him out now", 10 being "he was outstanding even beyond my craziest expectations".

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