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Sean Couturier’s breakout season has been a long time coming

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The 2011 first round pick is having an all-star season

Kate Frese

The date is June 23rd, 2011. The Philadelphia Flyers were a day away from the 2011 NHL Draft after a disappointing end to a promising season. After winning the Atlantic Division for the first time since 2003-2004, the Flyers managed to squeak out a seven game series win vs. the Buffalo Sabres, before being swept in the second round by Boston. A key theme of the playoff struggles was lack of a true number one goaltender; something late owner and founder Ed Snider was set to fix.

Mike Richards, the Flyers captain,, and Jeff Carter were traded on the same day, not even hours apart. On the same day, Ilya Bryzgalov was signed to that horrendous contract that the Flyers bought out after just two seasons. In the Carter trade however, the Flyers secured the eighth overall pick in the draft from the Columbus Blue Jackets. With this pick the Flyers needed to make it count—they just traded arguably their two best players, who would be on their board?

Sean Couturier was considered a steal

Most people forget this, but for a time, Sean Couturier was projected as the number one overall pick in his draft class. This is the same draft class featuring the likes of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Gabriel Landeskog. In Couturier’s rookie year with the Drummondville Voltigeurs, he scored 31 points in 58 games as a 15/16 year old. The following year, Couturier made his mark on the QMJHL with a 96 point season in 68 games, plus 18 playoff points in 14 games. Couturier suffered from mononucleosis in the off-season, which hurt the pace he was on with adding muscle to his frame. Couturier would continue to slip on draft boards despite having a second straight 96 point season, this time in fewer games. In a 2011 Yahoo! Sports article, E.J McGuire was quoted saying this about Couturier:

Well, if he falls all the way to No. 6, and somebody grabs him and he does recover more fully from his draft year mononucleosis — I mean, they may have the best player in the draft at No. 6.’ “

The Flyers ended up grabbing Couturier with the eighth overall pick in the draft. The 18 year old would make the team out of camp and wound up sticking around for the full season. Couturier scored his first NHL goal in just his fifth game against the Ottawa Senators. He wound up with 27 points in his rookie campaign, but the most memorable moment from his first year was his defensive performance in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Couturier kept all-world center Evgeni Malkin quiet for much of the series — solidifying himself as a future Selke Trophy candidate — and one of the better young two-way centers in the league, even getting two Selke votes. Oh, by the way, he also scored a hat-trick in that first round series with Pittsburgh.

The following year the players were locked out until January, so Couturier—along with players like Brayden Schenn and Zac Rinaldo—joined the Phantoms until the lockout was over. Couturier scored 28 points in 31 games and seemed prime to be a big contributor in his sophomore season. Unfortunately for the Flyers and Couturier, he was only able to put together a 15 point season in 46 games. The next three seasons he scored 39, 37, and 39 points again, with his last year total only reaching 34.

Who would have guessed bad linemates are bad for development?

During those first five seasons, many fans and media alike doubted that Couturier was ever going to be capable of amounting to anything more than a defensive stalwart, a third line center. Now, the Flyers number one center is on pace for a 47 goal, 84 point season, which would shatter previous career highs. Playing with a player of Claude Giroux’s caliber has helped Couturier, but truth be told, his breakout season most likely would have come much sooner with better coaching.

Until last season, one could make the argument that Sean Couturier was the most poorly utilized player in all of hockey. In his rookie season, the center was paired with Maxime Talbot, and Zac Rinaldo. Now, while Talbot drove play at a solid rate with a 50.82 CF%, Rinaldo was a meager 46.73%. Couturier put together a 27 point, 49.64 CF% rookie season; these numbers were even more impressive considering the defensive workload put upon the 19 year old.

Out of his 748 total 5-on-5 faceoffs, Couturier took 36.36% of them in his own zone and just 23.93% in the offensive zone. With just one year under his belt, he had become then-head coach Peter Laviolette’s go-to defensive center.

TOI with Couturier leaders by year

2011-2012 2012-2013 2013-2014 2014-2015 2015-2016 2016-2017 2017-2018
2011-2012 2012-2013 2013-2014 2014-2015 2015-2016 2016-2017 2017-2018
Talbot Talbot Read Read Raffl Voracek Giroux
Rinaldo Rinaldo Downie Umberger Simmonds Konecny Voracek
Read Knuble Raffl Simmonds Read Weise Simmonds

While Dave Hakstol has made a lot of...well, questionable decisions to say the least with a lot of our younger players, one thing he has done extremely well is utilizing Couturier. Not only has the Flyers head coach given the former first round pick better linemates, he’s gotten him out of the defensive shell that Laviolette and Berube forced him into. This defense-heavy roll took a toll on his CF% as well, and while he never dipped below 48%, he wasn’t the play driving wizard that we all know him as today.

Travis Hughes’ wonderful drawing from 2015

In the lockout-shortened season of 2012-2013, 41% of his faceoffs came from his own zone and just 19% from the offensive zone. This problem continued until Hakstol entered as head coach; he gave Couturier a lot more offensive opportunities and the linemates to further help his cause. In 2015-2016, Couturier was on pace to have what looked like a breakout season, but in February he went down with a lower body injury. He only played 63 games that year but tied his career high in points during that span. If he played a full 82 game season, we’re most likely looking at the 50 point season so many people had been begging for. When Couturier went down again in the playoffs vs. the Washington Capitals, the impact on the team was immediate. Do the Flyers win that series if Couturier stays healthy? Probably not! But it sure as hell would have made them a lot more competitive. At the end of the season he placed 8th in Selke voting, the highest of his career so far.

Couturier CF/CF rel/CF relT 2011-2018

2011-2012 2013 2013-2014 2014-2015 2015-2016 2016-2017 2017-2018
2011-2012 2013 2013-2014 2014-2015 2015-2016 2016-2017 2017-2018
CF: 49.64 CF: 48.30 CF: 49.12 CF: 48.40 CF: 54.27 CF: 54.69 CF: 54.49
CF rel: -1.27 CF rel: 1.19 CF rel: -1.27 CF rel: -1.35 CF rel: 4.06 CF rel: 4.42 CF rel: 7.87
CF relT: 0.54 CF relT: 2.83 CF relT: -.10 CF relT: 0.51 CF relT: 3.75 CF relT: 4.70 CF relT: 11.01

Not only has Couturier been driving play at a much better rate under Hakstol, he’s been considerably better than a lot of his teammates. The only season he’s been in the negatives was his third season, one where he spent most of his time with Read, Downie and then-rookie Michael Raffl.

Something that Couturier has always done well is scoring at even strength. Until this season, at least 65% of his total points at the end of each year came at 5-on-5 play. This year has taken a small hit because of the added power play minutes, but even then, 26 of his 45 points have come at 5-on-5. (He scored 27 5-on-5 points last season)

Throughout his career, Sean Couturier has dealt with labels being put on him that, for the most part, have been undeserved. He’s been called a “bust”, or “a third line center at best”, with many citing his point totals as evidence. What has been so overlooked is the mismanagement of Couturier up until the past few seasons; being paired with players like Max Talbot, Zac Rinaldo, and RJ Umberger doesn’t happen all too often to top ten draft selections. This was a guy who had back-to-back 96 point seasons in the QMJHL and was a projected first overall pick at one point, not someone who was a projected defense-only center.

So does playing with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek for much of the early going improve his point totals? Of course it does! But that doesn’t mean Giroux’s resurgence wasn’t helped by the play of Couturier, who’s work along the boards and play driving prowess has done wonders for the team’s captain. At the moment, Couturier is tied for third in the league in goal scoring, and 18th in total points, all while ranking 5th in TOI per game among forwards. What makes this all the more impressive is he’s putting up these kinds of numbers despite ranking 7th in the league in defensive zone faceoffs.

Sure, there’s a little bit of luck right now on Couturier’s side. He’s shooting at a 19.2% clip and that most likely will come down at some point, but he needed a little bit of luck to boost the confidence of a player who desperately needed an increased offensive role. He recognized this himself when asking for a bigger role after the end of last season, now he’s got it and making the most of it. Yes, the scoring pace Couturier is on is surprising. What isn’t surprising however is the breakout season itself, this has been coming for years now, and it’s been a thrill to watch so far.

All stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Hockey-reference, NHL.com, and Corsica.hockey