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Philadelphia Flyers 25 Under 25: Sean Couturier remains an essential part of the Flyers’ present and future

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Couturier drops out of the top spot of our list for the first time since 2014, but still should be viewed as a key building block for the Flyers.

Kate Frese / SB Nation

Since Broad Street Hockey launched the Top 25 Under 25 series with our first full list in February of 2014, the one constant has been the presence of Sean Couturier. Back then, he was a youthful 21 years of age, only a few months removed from reaching legal drinking age in the United States. Yet he still ranked second on our list that very first time, behind only Jakub Voracek.

From then on, the appearance of Couturier at the end of this little exercise became a regular tradition. With Voracek aging out by August of 2014, Couturier took his place at the top of the heap for the list’s second incarnation. September of 2015 brought an identical result. Five months later, Couturier was still first, and entering the 2016-17 season, BSH’s opinion was the same: no Flyers player under the age of 25 was more valuable than Sean Couturier.

Finally, just six months ago, the Flyers’ shutdown center faced the first real threat to his Top 25 Under 25 dominance, in the form of 20-year old Ivan Provorov. The Russian defenseman was unable to knock Couturier off his perch entirely, but Provorov did make him share the spotlight by creating a tie for the top spot. Couturier’s previously-comfortable place at No. 1 was under siege.

Some have argued that Broad Street Hockey has long overvalued Sean Couturier, with these lists cited as incontrovertible proof. And as a site that proudly leans upon statistics to evaluate the contributions of players, BSH would not deny that Couturier was the exact type that we would naturally love. Back in the days when the stat community consensus held that factors like zone starts and quality of competition had major impacts upon results, Couturier’s middling even strength statistics were explained away as products of tough minutes. Then, just as the prevailing research began to imply that usage was not as impactful as previously thought, Couturier’s results at 5-on-5 surged to first liner levels, continuing to justify BSH’s admiration while the skeptics raged on.

But with Sean Couturier finally turning 25 this coming December, the endless debate in this series will finally cease. Never again will Couturier appear in a Top 25 Under 25 article on BSH, after being a staple from the very start. And in his final turn on the list, Couturier appropriately ends up right back where he started, playing second fiddle to a (definitely in Voracek’s case, hopefully in Provorov’s) budding European star, yet still undeniably a pivotal piece of the Flyers’ roster for years to come.

No. 2: Sean Couturier

Position: C
Age: 24 (12/7/1992)
Acquired Via: 2011 NHL Draft -- Round 1, Pick 8 (Pick acquired from Columbus along with Pick No. 68 in 2011 and Jakub Voracek in exchange for Jeff Carter on June 23, 2011)
2016-17 League/Team/Statistics: Philadelphia (NHL) - 14 G, 20 A in 66 GP
Nationality: Canadian
Ranking in BSH Winter 2017 25 Under 25: T-1

The debate surrounding Sean Couturier’s value always goes back to point totals. “If Couturier is such a good player,” the skeptics charge, “why does he flub so many golden opportunities? Why is he such an underwhelming skater? Why, oh why, has he never scored even 40 points in a full season?”

The 40-point threshold has become a benchmark for Couturier and his detractors, specifically because he’s come so close to clearing it in each of his past four seasons. After posting 39 points in 82 games back in 2013-14, Couturier has finished with 37, 39, and 34 in the following three years, each time coming up just short of the targeted mark.

However, it’s fair to note than in each of the last two years, Couturier has scored at a point-per-game rate that would have comfortably put him over 40 over a full 82-game season. In 2015-16, his pace would have given him about 51 points in a complete schedule, while last year he was trending to 42 points on the whole. Only injuries kept him from finally achieving the goal that skeptics have set for him.

Those injuries have allowed detractors the ability to ignore the clear improvements that Couturier has made over the past two seasons. In the early part of his NHL career, Couturier’s upside was theoretical, with his tangible results mostly middling. Still, fans were quick to argue, “imagine how good he would be if he wasn’t taking all of the tough shifts, and actually had good linemates!” Starting in 2015-16, Sean Couturier began to turn those theories into reality.

From our review of Couturier’s season back in May:

Over the past two seasons, no Flyers forward has more points at 5v5 than Couturier and his 55, and that’s even with him missing 35 games over that span. When you account for ice time using the Points/60 stat, Couturier towers over his Flyers peers with a 1.85 rate, easily besting second-place Brayden Schenn who checks in at 1.57. That’s a larger gap than the one that exists between Jakub Voracek and Dale Weise over the past two seasons.

In 2016-17, his scoring rates dropped a bit from the previous season, as he posted a 1.76 Points/60. That still put him in high-end second liner territory at 109th among NHL forwards with at least 500 minutes, and more importantly, still led the Flyers. It’s really not a stretch to call Sean Couturier the team’s best 5v5 scorer.

Nor is it a stretch to rank him as their best play-driver. Only Matt Read posted a better score-adjusted Corsi For percentage in 2016-17 among regular Flyers forwards, barely topping Couturier 54.55% to 54.02%. But Couturier was tops in the important Corsi For% RelTM stat, which measures how one’s teammates perform with and then without a player. Alongside Couturier, teammates (on average) performed 4.7 percentage points better in Corsi than they did away from him. Couturier also led the forwards in score-adjusted Expected Goals For percentage at 53.87% and in actual Goals For percentage with 54.42%.

With Claude Giroux likely in some degree of decline and Jakub Voracek coming off a bizarre down season, Sean Couturier has a very strong case to be considered the Flyers’ best even strength forward entering 2017-18. He may not be a truly elite 5v5 player relative to the best in hockey, but it’s pretty easy to call him a great even strength contributor considering his tangible results over the past two seasons. And on a team that has lacked any punch at 5v5 for quite a while, a great even strength contributor is especially valuable.

The blemish on Couturier’s NHL resume thus far, and the primary reason why he has failed to live up to the expectations of many, has been his power play production. It’s basically been nonexistent. From that same review:

There’s a reason why Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn dwarfed Sean Couturier’s point production over the past two seasons, despite Couturier being the more efficient scorer at 5v5. It’s because they have become high-end power play forwards, while Couturier has failed to establish himself in that key situation.

It hasn’t been for lack of opportunity, at least when it comes to raw ice time. Over the past four years, Couturier was granted 525:42 minutes at 5v4, primarily with the second unit. However, in those minutes, he’s been able to muster just 17 total points, with only six counting as primary points (goals and first assists).

For perspective, there have been 188 forwards over the past four seasons to skate in at least 400 minutes at 5v4. Couturier ranks 186th in Points per 60 among that group, at 1.94. In Primary Points/60, he’s dead last at 0.68. Jori Lehtera is the next worst primary point producer — at 1.14, nearly double Couturier’s rate.

Setting aside for the moment the fact that since this article was originally published, the Flyers went and acquired the second-worst primary point-producing power play forward in hockey, Sean Couturier’s lack of production with the man advantage has been startling. It’s much easier to understand how a player with strong 5v5 scoring rates could have overall counting statistics that seem so underwhelming at first glance, once you realize that Couturier is getting only minimal points from his time spent on the PP.

That shouldn’t take away from his performance at even strength. Couturier’s value in that portion of the game should be unquestioned by anyone who remotely trusts the mountains of data supporting that conclusion. But his struggles on the power play will leave the Flyers with an interesting decision regarding Couturier’s usage entering 2017-18.

With Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde gone, both spots on Philadelphia’s top penalty killing forward duo are now waiting to be filled. Couturier has thrived in a prominent PK role in the past, and could easily slide into one of the available slots. The heavy minutes incurred on PK1 would likely keep Couturier on the second power play, if he stays on the power play at all. It would be easy to remove him entirely considering the talented rookies on their way, and justify the decision by arguing that Couturier needs to be saved for those tough penalty kill situations.

Or, the Flyers could go the opposite route. The trade of Brayden Schenn leaves one spot open on the team’s potent PP1 — the bumper role in the slot. If new assistant coach Kris Knoblauch has designs on keeping the general tactics of the top unit intact, he needs a player with a left-handed shot to replace Schenn in that spot, and Couturier qualifies. Yes, Couturier has long struggled to produce on the power play, but he’s also almost exclusively played on a weak second unit. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that — considering his lofty status on the depth chart — the Flyers give Couturier a shot to prove his worth on PP1. In that case, it’s unlikely he’d also be expected to carry PK1 as well.

So what is in store for Sean Couturier in 2017-18 — a return to the role of PK stalwart, or one last shot to prove he can be a power play point producer and silence the “he can’t score!” critics? That will be one of the many fascinating stories in training camp this September.

Accepting Couturier’s true value

Even though Sean Couturier will never again be a centerpiece of the Top 25 Under 25 on Broad Street Hockey, it would be foolish to assume the debates over his value as a hockey player will stop just because he has aged out of an ultimately meaningless online article series. Arguments about Couturier remain one of the fanbase’s favorite pastimes.

Supporters justly point to his strong 5v5 production, his positive results even against elite competition, and his stellar penalty killing metrics. Detractors cite the eye test by calling him a slow and ineffective offensive forward, and use his underwhelming raw point totals to underline their point.

By this time, it should be obvious which side of the debate I fall. Since I began writing at Broad Street Hockey, I suspect that I’ve spent more time defending Sean Couturier than I have any other Flyers player. For that reason, it’s strangely appropriate that a Top 25 Under 25 article that functions as Couturier’s farewell to the series doubles as my final article as a BSH contributor.

During my time at BSH, Sean Couturier has been a constant, a lightning rod separating the statistically-inclined from those requiring high-end raw point production and big goals to change their preconceived notions about a player. The reason why I’ve defended Couturier so often is because he became a microcosm of the debate over the viability of advanced metrics on the whole, a player who showed that just maybe, the numbers could be picking up something that our eyes might miss.

Just as Couturier’s game isn’t going to change just because he’ll turn 25 in December and age out of the Top25U25 series, I’ll continue to defend him and players like him no matter the platform where I write. Hopefully my work has helped to sway at least some opinions regarding Sean Couturier’s value, because he’s truly a worthy choice at No. 2 on our list and a key member of the Flyers’ roster, in 2017-18 and beyond.

How We Voted For Sean Couturier

Kurt Al Kelly Allison Jay Charlie Bill Steph Kate Travis Joe Community
Kurt Al Kelly Allison Jay Charlie Bill Steph Kate Travis Joe Community
3 5 5 2 3 2 2 2 4 2 2 3

How We Voted At No. 2

Kurt Al Kelly Allison Jay Charlie Bill Steph Kate Travis Joe Community
Kurt Al Kelly Allison Jay Charlie Bill Steph Kate Travis Joe Community
Nolan Patrick Ivan Provorov Nolan Patrick Sean Couturier Nolan Patrick Sean Couturier Sean Couturier Sean Couturier Travis Konecny Sean Couturier Sean Couturier Nolan Patrick

How The Community Voted For Sean Couturier

Ranking # of Votes
Ranking # of Votes
1 164
2 328
3 236
4 106
5 64
6 27
7 20
8 19
9 12
10 10
11 4
12 10
13 6
14 4
15 1
16 2
17 2
18 0
19 4
20 0
21 0
22 1
23 0
24 0
25 2
NR 12

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Previously on Philadelphia Flyers Summer 2017 25 Under 25: