One of the biggest reasons for the Flyers’ hot start to the 2019-20 season has been the play of the Sean Couturier line. He, along with Oskar Lindblom and Travis Konecny, have been one of the better lines in hockey as we approach the quarter-way mark of the season. Lindblom and Konecny are having breakout seasons, and Couturier is continuing to be one of the most underrated centers in the league.
It was at first a questionable move on head coach Alain Vigneault’s part to put the line together, given the success Couturier has had with Claude Giroux. Couturier and Giroux have been joined at the hip for the good part of the last two seasons, and it’s paid massive dividends. Couturier has seen his point totals skyrocket, and Giroux has put any talk of regression to rest with a 102 point season in 2017-18, and an 85 point campaign last year.
But from the opening game, this line has been a force to be reckoned with and shows no signs of slowing down. Konecny leads the Flyers in points with 19 in 17 games, Lindblom second with 14, and Couturier third with 13. While those point totals are impressive, it’s how well they’re performing by the metrics that really tell the story.
One of the initial concerns with this line was having two of your best play-driving forwards in Couturier and Lindblom stacked on one line, rather than spreading the wealth. Quickly, those concerns were stifled as the play-driving prowess of those two along with Konecny just took over games at times. The work this line has been able to put in cycling the puck is truly sensational. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a line capable of cycling the puck like this, and getting the point totals to show for it.
In just over 153 minutes of ice time together, this line has simply dominated their competition. They’ve posted a 60.74 Corsi-For percentage, and a 57.18 expected goals-for percentage. On their own, those numbers are amazing. A 60 percent Corsi and xGF through almost 20 games, with the schedule this Flyers team has had, is no small feat whatsoever. But how do they stack up against the best of the best in the National Hockey League?
There’s no better place to look for that comparison than the team the Flyers just beat in the Boston Bruins, who have what is widely considered to be the best line in hockey featuring Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. That line for Boston, in just under 185 minutes, posts a 56.85 Corsi, and a 55.44 xGF. Of course, their numbers are elite in their own right, but it shows just how dominant the Couturier line has been to start the season.
So where do the lines differ? Point totals. Pastrnak leads the NHL in goals with 15, with an equal amount of assists to give him an insane 30 points in 17 games. Marchand, not too far behind, sits at 29 points with 11 goals and 18 assists. Bergeron brings up the rear on that line at a measly 17 points, what a scrub, am I right? But, it is important to point out a large amount of those point totals have come via the power play, where all three are on the Bruins’ top unit which honestly seems very unfair and should be outlawed.
At 5-on-5, the Bergeron line has a goals-for percentage of 62.50, whereas the Couturier line is dead even at 50 percent. The obvious answer to why that’s the case is there’s just a ton more pure skill on that line. Pastrnak is one of the most offensively gifted players in the league, and at this point Marchand has to be up there as well. Tie that together with one of the best two-way centers in the game in Bergeron, and that’s a nightmare to play against. That’s not to say the Couturier line isn’t incredibly skilled, but they’re skilled in more of a two-way game than the Boston line.
It also helps for that line to have a PDO of 1.027 while on the ice, shooting a healthy 14.29 percent and getting an on-ice save percentage of 88.46. Meanwhile for the Flyers, the Couturier line sees a PDO of 0.968 with a shooting percentage of just 9.89, and a save percentage of 86.96. So yes, the lethal offensive capabilities of the Boston line certainly need to be taken into consideration. But, it doesn’t mean we should ignore they’ve seemingly been the more “lucky” line to start things off.
Lest we forget the fact the Couturier line has had more of a defensive responsibility, with an offensive zone start percentage of 54.65 to the Bergeron line’s 67.28. It’s not like the Couturier line is starting off every shift in the defensive zone like it used to back in the day when the center was solely relied upon for defense, but there’s a big gap here.
So the Couturier line has more of a defensive responsibility, but which line has fared better vs. elite competition? To really be an elite line, the players on it should be able to perform well regardless of who it is on the ice against them, and there is no better line in hockey at that, than the Flyers’ trio.
Couturier vs. Bergeron line QoC
As a disclaimer, this data does not include the Flyers most recent game vs. Boston it appears, having listed the trio at just 16 games played rather than 17. According to Puck IQ, the top three forwards in the NHL in Corsi vs. elite competition are Travis Konecny, Sean Couturier and Oskar Lindblom in that order. As a point of reference, the Boston top line does have a slight edge in percent of overall time on ice spent vs. elite competition, but not by a great deal.
In contrast, none of the Bruins’ top line even breaks even in Corsi vs. elite competition. The highest percentage is held by Marchand at a 49.40 percent, but then it dips to 48 percent for Bergeron, and a very surprising 45.60 for Pastrnak. Not only does the Flyers’ line beat them generally by the metrics, they destroy them when comparing which line has had the tougher job.
Although Puck IQ doesn’t have an expected goals model, they do give us dangerous fenwick statistics to give us some kind of idea on the quality of these shot attempts. Here again, the Couturier line blows the Bergeron line out of the water with no member of the Bruins’ line coming close to breaking even, while the entire Flyers’ line sits above 65 percent. Not only is this line getting more chances vs. the best of the best, they’re getting high percentage chances to boot.
Just via the eye test, the Couturier line has looked amazing to start the season, but when diving deeper and comparing them to a line as insane as the Bergeron line, we begin to see just how truly dominant they’ve been. This isn’t just a line that’s drove play, and that’s all. They’ve been scoring at a solid rate that has one of them in Konecny over a point per game, and all of the metrics are pointing to this line eventually going on a massive scoring tear.
“But what happens if they don’t?”
Then they’re still by far the best play-driving line in hockey, that’s scoring at a more than acceptable rate. If that’s not satisfactory, I’m not sure what is. It’s not as if this line is barely beating the Bruins’ top line in play-driving and shot quality statistics, they’re absolutely obliterating them. The best part is, all of it feels extremely sustainable given the competition they’ve done it against.
This line isn’t just “good” vs. elite competition, they’re taking it to the best of the best in the NHL each and every night and winning the battles. Is this to say I don’t think the Bergeron line is “actually good?” No, let’s not be silly here. That line is incredibly talented and will be a top line in the league all season, but I think it’s fair to say they do have deficiencies of their own, even if they’re not out in plain sight.
If the Flyers hope to continue their winning ways of late, the Couturier line will have to be a big part of that effort. If they can start cashing in on a few more of their plentiful and quality chances, we might be seeing quite an extended period of winning this season.
Data courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and Puck IQ