In this little exercise we've been doing since early August, we've gone through and reviewed 23 young prospects -- just about all of whom have the potential to be NHLers in some capacity, but are also all unknowns to varying extents -- and one 24-year old who's shown that he's an NHLer but whose long-term role and standing in the organization is still unclear.
Perhaps it says a lot about the Flyers' drafting record in the past decade or so that there's only one player currently at the NHL level who we can say, right now, with confidence, is a franchise building block. So in a way, Sean Couturier's position at the top of this ranking is kind of by default.
But when Ron Hextall inked the still-just-22-year-old center to a six-year contract back in July of this summer, he made it clear that this franchise sees him as a crucial part of its future. And with 11 of our 12 voters placing Couturier at the top of our ballots, we wouldn't much disagree.
That's not to say that there isn't some disagreement among Flyers fans regarding Couturier, both in terms of what he currently is and what he may still have the potential to be. Much like his fellow 2011-12 rookie, Brayden Schenn, Couturier is someone for whom fans have been looking for that "breakout year" for about three seasons now. And each year, Couturier has done some things well but also gone through stretches where the offensive production wasn't there, and he's yet to break 40 points in a season (though he's hit 39 and 37 in the past two regular season).
As such, there are some who have seen enough and believe that Couturier's ceiling isn't much higher than what we've already seen of him. That he'll probably never score much more than a typical third-line center would. And that pointing to his heavy defensive workload is an excuse, and doesn't come close to fully explaining his frustrations offensively. (People who have argued that last point include his former head coach.)
Still, before closing the book on the young center's development, it's worth mentioning just how much Sean Couturier's coaches have asked of him during his NHL time.
While what we saw this past year with Couturier wasn't quite like the time during the shortened season where Peter Laviolette pinned him with Max Talbot, Mike Knuble, and Zac Rinaldo, all while cutting his ice time, it did become frustrating to watch for people who have grown to become fans of his. Up through the middle of February, the heavy majority of Couturier's ice time was spent alongside Matt Read, who spent much of the first half of the year dealing with a high ankle sprain, and R.J. Umberger, who spent the whole year dealing with ailments such as "an injured hip" and "not being good at hockey".
One would look at that situation and possibly decide it would not be a good idea to ask a lot of that trio of players. Yet despite this, Berube not only didn't let up on Couturier's already-tough defensive minutes, he even ramped them up a bit. As Travis mentioned in the piece linked above:
Among all NHL forwards that played at least 1,000 minutes at five-on-five in 2014-15, Couturier started the fewest percentage of his shifts in the offensive end of the ice -- just 25.5 percent. Of that same group of forwards, Couturier also started the highest percentage of shifts in the defensive end of the ice -- 38.7 percent of his total 5v5 shifts. We don't even need to get into talk about guys he's tasked with playing against -- often the Crosbys, Ovechkins and Tavares' of the world -- to notice that this is keeping him at an offensive disadvantage.
It can get tiring to just point to Couturier's minutes as an excuse for offensive numbers not quite being where we want. But it is staggering how much they've asked of him defensively.
And in a way, those minutes that he was given show how much the team thought of Couturier and what he's capable of bringing. Berube said at one point in the 2013-14 season that Couturier was one of two players for whom he would break his "rule" of not giving forwards more than 20 minutes of ice time per game. Berube knew exactly how much he was asking of Couturier on a night-in, night-out basis -- one could argue that his comment about "excuses" and his comparison of Couturier to Patrice Bergeron was a statement of how highly he thought of Couturier and his abilities (albeit a comparison that missed the point and a statement that was worded rather poorly).
In any case, if there was disappointment in Couturier's performance last year, Hextall made it clear that he was undeterred by it, handing Couturier a contract extension that will likely keep him here through the 2021-22 season. It's an interesting contract, one which looks a bit hefty at first glance for a guy who's never cracked a half-point-per-game.
But it only underscores how much confidence the team has in him eventually breaking out and showing off a bit more of the skill that the Flyers saw when they took him at No. 8 overall four years ago. As Justin Bourne over at theScore put it when the extension was signed, in a piece headlined "Sean Couturier failed in not betting on himself, and the Flyers will benefit":
Craig Berube had him spend the bulk of his time between R.J. Umberger and Matt Read - quite the honor, of course - starting in the D-zone, and playing tough minutes. He led Flyers forwards in short-handed ice time (on a heavily penalized Philly team), yet only saw the seventh-most power play minutes.
Might new Flyers' coach Dave Hakstol use him differently?
Might another year of physical development, another year of hockey and life experience, a fresh start with a new bench boss push him beyond just "defensive specialist?"
There's a good chance it will.
Stepping into the prime of his NHL career - particularly after having offensive success in junior - should have had Couturier wondering if he shouldn't at least give himself a chance in the coming years to get paid like the big boys.
Will Hakstol still ask a lot of Couturier defensively? I have to imagine he will -- it does seem like the best way to get value out of his defensive ability, and it allows the likes of Claude Giroux to spend a bit more time doing what he does (scoring). But even a lightening up of his responsibilities from "toughest in the league among any regular forward" to "pretty tough" could go a long way towards seeing more offense from Couturier -- as could a return to health for his frequent linemate Matt Read and a better winger than Umberger on his other side. All of Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, and Brayden Schenn had moderately successful stretches on Coots' right wing at times last year, and any one of them (assuming Read can stay over to the left wing to replace Umberger) would be a substantial upgrade on what Umberger brought on the left side last year.
And to be clear, Couturier himself still has some work to do. With him still being an average-at-best skater, much of his offense has to come from his smarts and vision. He needs to be a bit more aggressive down low near the net when it comes to finishing chances, and he is clearly still not totally comfortable on the wall on that second power play unit. But some of that can still improve in time for the 22-year old, and if it does, his already-high value to this team will go through the roof.
Next year may be the year we need to start "seeing it" from Couturier. With his contract in hand and better opportunities likely on the horizon, another year like last year's won't go very far to convince the folks who have been disappointed in Couturier's already-four-year-old career. But the Flyers have made it clear how much they believe in him and how much potential they think he still has -- and that combination of certainty and potential is how he ends up at the top of this list.
How we voted for Sean Couturier:
Who we voted for at No. 1:
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