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Sean Couturier's continued evolution as an elite defensive player

So far in his NHL career, Sean Couturier is establishing himself as an elite defensive player. Can he keep it up, and what's his potential as an offensive threat?

Eric Hartline-US PRESSWIRE

Small sample sizes give more extreme results than larger samples, where luck evens out a bit, but in a shortened NHL season (or early in any NHL year), it can be fun to highlight impressive results.

John Tavares, for example, is on a 56-goal pace, and Steven Stamkos is on a 132-point pace, although even if this season went 82 games, we wouldn't expect to see them hit those marks. Let's look at one other stat that's a bit less conventional but still equally impressive.

Sean Couturier is taking on the toughest minutes a coach can dole out. He's facing the opponents' top lines every night (he ranks 18th in the league in Corsi Rel QoC, which correlates pretty strongly with the quality of opposing forwards faced). He's starting in the defensive zone an awful lot (he ranks 27th in defensive zone starts).

And with all due respect to Max Talbot and Mike Knuble (his most common linemates), he's not getting top-tier wingers who drive play -- they both spent most of the last five years on strong teams and got outshot more often than not.

And yet so far this year, even in those really tough minutes, the Flyers are outshooting their opponents when Couturier is on the ice.

I went looking to see how rare an accomplishment this would be if he kept it up for the full season. In the last five years, only five forwards have had a positive shot differential with a Corsi Rel QoC of at least 0.7 and at least 60 percent defensive zone starts. That list doesn't include Mike Richards, whose amazing 2008-09 season came with just under 60 percent zone starts and a slightly negative shot differential.

Couturier is establishing himself as one of the elite defensive players in the league.

So who are these top-tier comparables? Well, it turns out to be a list of primarily defensive specialists: Marcel Goc in 2011-12 (who finished with 27 points), Bryan Bickell in 2011-12 (24 points), Joel Ward in 2010-11 (29 points), Branko Radivojevic in 2007-08 (17 points), and Ryan Kesler in 2007-08 (37 points).

Couturier is establishing himself as one of the elite defensive players in the league. Yet no player used in minutes that tough has ever really been a top-tier scorer at even strength.

His scoring pedigree in juniors suggests that it would be a disappointment if he plateaus as a defensive specialist, but there is no guarantee that his scoring will improve from the ~35-point skill he's shown in the NHL and AHL over the last two years. Will he (like Richards and Kesler) develop into an elite power play producer? Will he (like Kesler or Jeff Carter) find himself gradually deployed in more offensive minutes as his scoring touch develops? Or will he be the rare player in Pavel Datsyuk's mold who can score in his team's toughest minutes?

Use the comments to share what your crystal ball tells you.

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