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Sean Couturier’s breakout season has been years in the making

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It’s all coming together for the sixth-year pro offensively.

Kate Frese / SBNation
Kate Frese / SBNation

Sean Couturier is off to a flat-out ridiculous start, but there’s more to it than that as he settles in as the Flyers’ No. 1 center.

Just 24-years-old, the former QMJHL star with the Drummondville Voltigeurs is now in his sixth NHL season and enjoying a breakout performance on the ice—offensively that is.

Since breaking the Flyers’ opening night roster way back in 2011 as a 19-year-old, Couturier has been a rock defensively for the club as evidence by his career 40.9% offensive zone start percentage. He’s finished in the top 10 in Selke Trophy voting—given annually to the forward who demonstrates the most still in the defensive component of the game—twice since entering the league (2013-14, 2015-16).

But though he spent the better part of his first five seasons as a shutdown center for the Flyers, it wasn’t just because Couturier excelled in his own end instinctively, it was also because the Flyers had a glut of centers in the organization that clouded things.

In his rookie year of 2011-12, there was Claude Giroux, Daniel Briere, Maxime Talbot, Brayden Schenn and Couturier all vying for center ice time. Though everyone save for Giroux could split some action on the wing, it wasn’t like the rookie from the QMJHL was going to get top-six minutes and ample offensive opportunities. He finished the year with 27 points (13G, 14A) while starting 60% of his shifts in the defensive zone.

After two years and middling success with young guys like Schenn and Couturier spending time at center, the Flyers went out and signed Vincent Lecavalier to a large deal in free agency to be their No. 2 center behind Giroux, or so they hoped. Instead, the former Tampa Bay star flamed out, scoring just 58 points in 133 games in a Flyers uniform in parts of two seasons.

Perhaps the bigger issue with the failed Lecavalier era was that the veteran stole potentially valuable ice time away from guys like Schenn, Couturier and then Scott Laughton in all situations. The experiment failed and could have delayed the development of those young centers as offensive opportunity went to the veteran over the youngsters.

It’s no surprise that the following year sans Lecavalier showed the beginning of the rise of Couturier.

In 2015-16, Couturier saw his offensive zone starts climb from to 43.4% from 40.1% and post a career-high with a 52.4% Corsi For (about 4% better than his career rate to that point). His possession numbers weren’t a fluke, either, as evidence by his 2.1% Corsi For relative to his teammates. He tied his career-high with 39 points (11G, 28A) and was a plus player for the fourth time in five years.

But with 34 points (14G, 20A) it didn’t turn out that way, not at least in terms of putting up the production of the legitimate #2 center that the Flyers desperately needed.

While he didn’t break the 40-point barrier and venture into that top-six caliber center stage in terms of points last season, Couturier posted a career-high 54.5% Corsi For and nearly doubled his Corsi For% relative. Though the goals and assists weren’t there, the corner was already turned. He just needed more opportunity.

With depth down the middle thanks to No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick, Scott Laughton’s strong AHL play a year ago, and the acquisition of veteran Valtteri Filppula, the Flyers suddenly had another glut of centers heading into this season.

That’s when an experiment in camp saw Claude Giroux moved to the wing of…you guessed it: Sean Couturier. Jake Voracek would occupy the other wing to form the Flyers’ new-look top line. Though there were some growing pains in the preseason (Looking at you, G) the trio was dangerous offensively from the get-go and the experiment moved from infancy stages to full-blown reality.

Though 15 games the line has amassed 53 points (20G, 33A) to form one of the NHL’s top scoring lines. Couturier has been the beneficiary of playing with top skilled passers, notching nine goals already, just six away from his career-high of 15. That’s a cool 49-goal pace if you’re scoring at home. He’s also up to a career-best 45.7% offensive zone start percentage and a 53% Corsi For percentage.

Sure his shooting percentage (19.6%) will likely come down, but he’s getting the best chances he’s ever had in his young career playing with a pair of all-stars, and at the end of the day one of them has to shoot the puck right?

Sean Couturier is having a career-year offensively for the Flyers—and while its taken six years—the potential was always there and it’s all happening now right in front of our eyes.