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Philadelphia Flyers Top 25 Under 25: Sean Couturier stays at the top

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The best season of Sean Couturier's NHL career keeps him at No. 1 in this round of the BSH Top 25 Under 25 series.

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past few seasons, the Philadelphia Flyers under Ron Hextall have given fans good reason to be excited about all of the young, up-and-coming talent in the pipeline. Last year, the emergence of Shayne Gostisbehere was the big story, in addition to Scott Laughton and Nick Cousins earning close-to full-time roles in the lineup.

This year, Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny are the talk of the town, as both are in the process of strong pushes to make the roster as 19-year olds. Prospects like Philippe Myers, Samuel Morin, Travis Sanheim and Anthony Stolarz have also stood out during camp and the preseason. It's gotten to the point where every day, it feels like there is a new young gun emerging to stoke the fanbase.

But as fans admire Provorov and Konecny's possible NHL-readiness at age-19, it's easy to forget that back in 2011, Sean Couturier made the Flyers mere months after being drafted, rather than waiting a full year. They also can forget that as impressive as Gostisbehere's dynamic rookie season was, he enters the 2016-17 season the same age as Couturier, even though the center will be starting his sixth(!) NHL season.

The intention here is not to marginalize players like Gostisbehere, Provorov and Konecny, all of whom could be legitimately great over the long-term. Instead, it's to point out that Sean Couturier is special -- the rare player who can call himself a grizzled NHL vet before even entering the heart of his statistical prime. And in the wake of his best professional season, the sky is seemingly the limit for Sean Couturier.

No. 1: Sean Couturier

Position: C
Age: 23 (12/7/1992)
2015-16 League/Team/Statistics: Philadelphia (NHL) - 11 G, 28 A in 62 GP
Nationality: Canadian (Born in Phoenix, AZ)
Acquired Via: 2011 NHL Draft -- Round 1, Pick 8 (Pick acquired via Columbus along with Pick No. 68 in 2011 and Jakub Voracek for Jeff Carter)

It was obvious after just a few weeks of watching Couturier with the Flyers back in 2011 that he would be able to hold his own at the NHL level. Starting out as a fourth liner and penalty kill specialist, Couturier slowly worked his way up the lineup over the next few seasons, to the third line as the shutdown center, and finally up to the 2C spot right behind Claude Giroux.

No one has questioned his competence, especially on the defensive side. The big question surrounding Couturier has always been his eventual scoring upside. For a player drafted eighth overall, the argument goes, he should be more than a middle-six center who kills penalties. And after another season that saw Couturier fail to surpass the 40-point threshold, the skeptics of Couturier now have even more fuel, right?

Not exactly. While Couturier's raw point totals in 2015-16 merely look decent, his season was anything but.

Let's start with those points. While Couturier only matched his previous career-high of 39 points last season, he did so in just 63 games. Over an 82-game schedule, that point-per-game pace would have placed Couturier not just over the 40-point mark, but over the 50-point mark as well. And for a player who missed just seven games over his first four NHL seasons, it's reasonable to conclude that he's probably not injury-prone and that last season's 19 games missed was something of a fluke.

His performance looks even better when we dive into the advanced metrics. After averaging 1.49 Points/60 during 5-on-5 play in his first four NHL seasons, Couturier surged to a 2.07 mark last year (via Corsica). Not only was that a career-best, it led the entire Flyers team in 2015-16, making Couturier the most efficient even strength scorer on the roster.

Couturier's results in terms of driving play also improved. He hovered around the break-even point in Corsi relative to his teammates over his first four years in the league, but last season, the Flyers performed almost four percentage points better (+3.96%) with Couturier on the ice versus when he sat on the bench. Only Michael Raffl topped Couturier in that measurement among Flyers forwards.

Some of this jump can be attributed to better linemates. While Couturier's most common linemate over the first four years of his career was partner-in-crime Matt Read, he also spent significant minutes alongside such luminaries as Max Talbot (581:41 minutes at 5-on-5), Zac Rinaldo (541:04), Steve Downie (437:01) and R.J. Umberger (423:51).

Compare that to 2015-16, when his most common linemates were (in order): Michael Raffl, Wayne Simmonds, Read, Jakub Voracek and Sam Gagner. No Rinaldos or Umbergers to be found here -- this list ranges from useful top-nine forwards to borderline superstars. Finally, Sean Couturier was not tasked with dragging inferior talent to respectability, and the results were spectacular.

But better linemates don't explain the jump in performance entirely. Couturier just flat out played better hockey than ever, particularly in the offensive zone. His 6-foot-3 frame always hinted at a player that would be able to impose his will physically once he filled out, but last year it finally happened. Couturier was a demon on the forecheck and in the cycle game, nearly impossible to knock off the puck down low. The result was extended shifts in the offensive zone for Couturier and his linemates, and with them came even more chances to score.

Assorted injuries (a concussion, a foot injury and an AC joint separation) were the only things that could slow Couturier last year. In fact, it may not be an overstatement to say that the Flyers lost their playoff series against the Capitals the minute that Couturier skated off the ice holding his shoulder in Game 1, considering their subsequent struggles on the penalty kill and in dealing with Washington's aggressive forecheck, two areas where Couturier excels. Had the 23-year old center played in all 82 games like he did in the two preceding seasons, he very well may have been in the race for the Selke Trophy -- that's how impressive his season was trending.

Entering 2016-17, there is no longer any question regarding Couturier's place in the lineup. He's solidified his spot as the team's second-line center, and he certainly won't be lacking for strong linemates. The real question is where Couturier goes from here. Just a repeat of last year's production but extended over 82 games would be enough to make him one of the best 2Cs in hockey, as 50-point centers who drive play and suppress shots at an elite level don't grow on trees.

But is it greedy to dream of even more from Couturier? Earlier this summer, we discussed the possibility that Claude Giroux may be in the midst of his age-related decline. While Giroux still could easily bounce back to past levels of production and render that talk mute, age remains a plausible explanation for Giroux's recent statistical decline. However, that decline becomes a lot easier to swallow if Giroux can slide into something of a David Krejci role -- a strong 60-70 point scorer supported by an elite two-way center on the other main line. Suddenly, Giroux doesn't need to be an elite 1C for the Flyers to contend, because they essentially have a 1A and 1B situation.

It's certainly not a guarantee that Couturier ever reaches Patrice Bergeron-esque levels of performance. In truth, it's an unlikely scenario, simply because players that dominant only come along a few times per generation. But Couturier at least has a chance. All apologies to German Rubtsov, but Sean Couturier remains the best hope in the organization for a possible 1C to supplant Giroux in the coming years.

That's why Couturier remains tops on this list. His floor is a regression back to the performance of his first four NHL seasons, which would still make him an above-average third line NHL center and a very useful player. But last year, we received a glimpse of Sean Couturier's ceiling, and fans can only hope that he continues to trend upwards as he settles into his prime years.

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How we voted for Sean Couturier :

Kelly Travis Charlie Allison Kurt Brent Collin Kevin Al Community
2 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1

How we voted at No. 1 :

Kelly Travis Charlie Allison Kurt Brent Collin Kevin Al Community
Shayne Gostisbehere Sean Couturier Sean Couturier Sean Couturier Sean Couturier Sean Couturier Sean Couturier Sean Couturier Sean Couturier Sean Couturier

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Previously in Philadelphia Flyers Top 25 Under 25, Summer 2016: