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2016-17 Flyers season review: Sean Couturier remains the most polarizing Flyer

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Despite posting his second straight stellar year at 5v5, the overall counting stats still weren’t there for Couturier. Will he ever have his “breakout” season?

Kate Frese Photography

If the goal is to quickly start an argument among diehard fans of the Philadelphia Flyers, just bring up the name of Sean Couturier.

While there are other players on the roster who have their detractors, no one brings to the table so many fervent supporters and vocal doubters as Couturier. Sure, players like Andrew MacDonald, Matt Read and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare have their loud critics, but those on the other side of the argument willingly concede that those guys aren’t high-end assets — they just argue they are relatively useful bottom-of-the-roster contributors.

Couturier supporters, on the other hand, can be guilty of tossing around the word “elite” to describe him, while the skeptics wonder if he’s even an above-average third line center. The gap in valuation is enormous.

The passion on both sides of the aisle is amplified by memories of Couturier’s pedigree. Taken eighth overall in 2011 courtesy of a pick acquired in the trade that sent Jeff Carter to Columbus, Couturier was expected to be an offensive difference-maker for the Flyers, especially in light of his 96 points in 58 games during his draft year in the QMJHL and the fact that he made the Flyers out of training camp in 2011 as an 18-year old.

Instead, Couturier followed an unexpected path. Rather than developing as a traditional point-scoring forward, Couturier has become known as a high-end defensive center, excelling as a penalty killer and in shot/scoring chance suppression. Individual goals and assists, on the other hand, have been harder to come by. In six NHL seasons, Couturier has failed to crack the 40-point mark in any of them, and therefore has been deemed a disappointment by those who expected a more dynamic player.

Neither the rabid defenders nor the vocal critics are entirely correct. Now 24-going-on-25, Couturier is not a perfect player, and certainly has holes in his game that at this point probably will not be rectified. However, statistics support the claim that Couturier is indeed quite valuable, albeit a forward who would be better served in sticking to roles that truly fit his natural skillset.

Sean Couturier

Category Status
Category Status
Position C
Age 24
Contract Status Signed Through 2021-22 for $4,333,333 per year

Basic Stats

Games Played Goals Assists Points PIM Shots on Goal Shooting Percentage
Games Played Goals Assists Points PIM Shots on Goal Shooting Percentage
66 14 20 34 33 120 11.7%

5v5 Individual Metrics

Points/60 Primary Points/60 Shot Attempts/60 Expected Goals/60 Penalty Differential Average Shooting Distance
Points/60 Primary Points/60 Shot Attempts/60 Expected Goals/60 Penalty Differential Average Shooting Distance
1.73 1.33 10.7 0.84 -1 21.73

5v5 On-Ice Stats

Score-Adjusted Corsi For % SA-Corsi Relative Corsi For % RelTM Score Adjusted-Expected Goals For % SA-Expected Goals Relative Goals For % PDO
Score-Adjusted Corsi For % SA-Corsi Relative Corsi For % RelTM Score Adjusted-Expected Goals For % SA-Expected Goals Relative Goals For % PDO
54.02% +4.06% +4.7% 53.87% +6.10% 54.42% 100

5v5 Manually-Tracked Metrics

Timeframe Entries/60 Controlled Entry % Primary Shot Contributions/60 Exits/60 Controlled Exit % Turnover % Neutral Zone Score Offensive Zone Score Defensive Zone Score
Timeframe Entries/60 Controlled Entry % Primary Shot Contributions/60 Exits/60 Controlled Exit % Turnover % Neutral Zone Score Offensive Zone Score Defensive Zone Score
First 30 Games 19.24 (7th among forwards) 59.55% (2nd) 21.19 (6th) 20.54 (1st) 40.00% (10th) 20.83% (13th) 52.79% (4th) 6.12% (4th) 4.09% (5th)
Final 38 Games 19.27 (7th) 56.36% (7th) 20.79 (8th) 16.82 (6th) 45.05% (11th) 20.88% (11th) 52.36% (4th) 9.80% (2nd) 9.80% (2nd)
All 68 Games in Dataset 19.26 (8th) 57.48% (6th) 20.93 (9th) 18.12 (3rd) 43.05% (13th) 20.86% (13th) 52.51% (5th) 8.44% (3rd) 7.79% (2nd)

What was “disappointing” about Couturier’s season?

Following a 2015-16 performance in which Sean Couturier posted a point per game rate (0.619) that was the best of his career, expectations were high for the young center for 2016-17. Extrapolating that rate over a full 82-game schedule, Couturier would have finally broken 50 points, and that mark was what both fans and skeptics alike were hoping for Couturier to achieve this past season.

Needless to say, he was not up to the task.

While his 0.515 point per game rate was the second-highest of his career, it would not have been enough to crack 50 even had Couturier played in all 82 regular season games. Unfortunately, a late November knee injury sidelined him for 16 games, holding the center to 66 contests. His 34 total points on the year was his lowest raw mark since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

Philadelphia Flyers v New Jersey Devils Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

But it wasn’t merely the point totals that frustrated fans. Critics continued to bemoan his skating ability, especially in the month of January when he was clearly still hampered by the lingering knee issue. The “he can’t score!” narrative then fed itself, with every missed breakaway opportunity and flubbed rush chance another piece of evidence to fuel the frustration.

And even when he did start scoring — 17 points in his final 20 games — the production was brushed aside because it all occurred after the Flyers were out of realistic playoff contention. Critics charged that he was “pulling a Zach Ertz,” a reference to the Eagles’ tight end who seemingly only produces at an elite level in December when his team’s playoff chances are slim. In addition, the fact that Couturier missed the team’s entire 10-game winning streak (due to his injury) lent support to the theory that the center was far from an essential player. So did the trade for Valtteri Filppula, that was viewed by some as a repudiation of Couturier’s ability to be a viable NHL 2C.

Given the nature of his 2016-17 season, it’s not terribly surprising to see some theorizing that Couturier could be viewed as trade bait now that the Flyers will almost certainly be adding one of Nico Hischier or Nolan Patrick with the second overall pick in late June. However, a deeper dive into the numbers shows that Philadelphia would be making a big mistake to “sell low” on Sean Couturier.

On the PK and at 5v5, Couturier is a standout

The issue with criticizing Sean Couturier for his poor raw point production is that there are three main game states in hockey — even strength, power plays, and penalty kills — and he thrives in two of them. It’s fairly easy to convince even Couturier doubters that his is a great shorthanded forward, as it plays into his reputation as a defensive center. But Couturier has posted stellar 5v5 results for two straight years now, and he deserves respect in that area as well.

His penalty kill prowess is undeniable. Despite being used as the second unit before the Bellemare-VandeVelde duo, the pair of Couturier and Wayne Simmonds was clearly the most effective PK unit on the Flyers in 2016-17 in terms of shot and chance suppression.

4v5 Shot and Chance Suppression

Forward TOI 4v5 Shot Attempts Against Per 60 4v5 Unblocked Attempts Against Per 60 4v5 Shots on Goal Against Per 60 4v5 Expected Goals Against Per 60 4v5 Scoring Chances Against Per 60
Forward TOI 4v5 Shot Attempts Against Per 60 4v5 Unblocked Attempts Against Per 60 4v5 Shots on Goal Against Per 60 4v5 Expected Goals Against Per 60 4v5 Scoring Chances Against Per 60
Sean Couturier 124.98 67.69 51.85 38.41 4.62 15.84
Wayne Simmonds 132.48 69.29 51.18 38.95 4.24 14.49
Chris VandeVelde 206.58 94.68 68.84 44.73 5.9 20.33
Matt Read 57.1 96.67 65.15 46.23 6.08 26.27
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare 230.4 97.14 69.27 43.75 5.89 20.83

One could criticize Couturier for the 6.59 Goals Against per 60 rate that he posted in 2016-17, even if that was primarily due to a low 84.15% on-ice save percentage that he received, a rate that doesn’t match up with the underlying shot and chance metrics that he posted. But even then, you’d have to credit Couturier for facilitating some actual offense on the PK, namely two shorthanded goals which is one more than Bellemare and VandeVelde could provide in a little less than double the ice time.

Even accounting for usage using Prashanth Iyer’s method, Couturier comes out well above average in terms of shot suppression. He “should” have posted around 82 shot attempts against per 60 considering his on-the-fly shifts, and instead he came in at 67.69. No Flyers forward graded better in terms of exceeding his usage-related expectations.

But it’s not hard to accept that Sean Couturier is an elite penalty killer by the stats. It’s obvious via the eye test that he is adept at breaking up rushes in the neutral zone and anticipating passes in the defensive zone, leading to successful clears and less attack time for opposing power plays. It’s more difficult to swallow that Couturier is not just a good 5v5 forward, but maybe the best on the Flyers. Luckily, the statistical evidence there is compelling.

Philadelphia Flyers v Toronto Maple Leafs
Couturier blocks a shot in a November game against the Maple Leafs.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Let’s start with scoring, since it’s the main point of frustration that most have with Couturier. 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.

One could argue that Couturier’s high standing speaks more towards the weakness of his teammates at 5v5 rather than his strength in the situation. And there is a degree of truth to that argument. Still, Couturier’s 1.85 Points/60 ranks him 70th in the NHL among forwards over the past two years, which essentially makes him a low-end first line scorer. Sure, a team ideally doesn’t want their top 5v5 scorer be merely 70th in the league, but that doesn’t make Couturier’s performance in any way bad, as he’s not being paid like a first liner anyway. It only speaks to the need for other players to improve around him.

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%.

The point of this is to show that when Sean Couturier was on the ice this season, the Flyers outshot, outchanced, and outscored their opponents to a substantial degree. In addition, teammates invariably saw better on-ice outcomes when they played alongside Couturier, versus when they skated with another Flyers center. And unlike fellow play-driver Read, Couturier actually produced tangible points at a solid rate as well during 5v5 play.

It’s also why the arguments that Couturier isn’t fast enough or that he flubs too many golden opportunities do not truly hold water. Maybe he’d be even more effective if he did excel in those areas, but Couturier’s recent results are just fine. Clearly, the inherent gaps in his skillset aren’t holding him back too much at even strength.

However, this analysis does gloss over a legitimate issue with Couturier’s 2016-17. Why did it take until March for Couturier to truly play his best hockey?

The most likely answers: injury and just plain old bad luck. To demonstrate, let’s look at his month-by-month performance in terms of 5v5 scoring, play-driving, and Expected on-ice Goals.

Couturier 5v5 Month-by-Month

5v5 Metric October November December/January February March/April
5v5 Metric October November December/January February March/April
Score-Adjusted Corsi 54.43% 52.74% 52.26% 55.97% 54.75%
Corsi Relative +4.62% +0.73% +2.21% +6.67% +5.43%
Points/60 1.68 0.89 1.22 1.2 2.81
On-Ice Shooting Percentage 9.47% 9.09% 6.19% 5.03% 11.61%
On-Ice xG For Per 60 3.1 2.59 2.94 2.67 3.06
On-Ice Actual GF60 3.36 2.67 2.13 1.59 4.1

Couturier’s October went about as expected following his strong 2015-16 season. He drove play, scored at a solid second liner level, and received fairly neutral luck. Had he remained at that level all year long, it would have been a fairly uncontroversial season. But things got weird in November, when Couturier had his only unexplainable mediocre month, merely breaking even territorially relative to his teammates and struggling to score. Then, he got hurt, and following his return in January, was probably still hampered by the injury.

By February, Couturier was rolling again, posting a 55.97% score-adjusted Corsi, +6.67% relative to his teammates. But the goals just wouldn’t come, as he (like all of his teammates at the time) was dealing with a painfully poor on-ice shooting percentage. Finally, the scoring rates turned in March, and Couturier combined the usual stellar territorial results with good fortune, and the result was a stellar 2.81 Points/60 rate to close out the season.

In the end, Couturier wasn’t a dramatically different player in March versus what he was in October, or January, or even February. He just was a little bit luckier in addition to being actually healthy. The late surge was less a case of an underachieving player racking up meaningless points, and more the percentages finally moving in his favor.

Power play struggles weigh Couturier down

The numbers are unequivocal in proving that over the past two seasons, Sean Couturier has been an above-average scoring forward during 5-on-5 play. However, his raw point totals simply do not match that conclusion. Injuries certainly have played a role in deflating his point production — give him two 82-game seasons in 2015-16 and 2016-17, and Couturier almost certainly breaks 40 points each year. But that isn’t the whole story.

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.

Some have argued that that the second power play unit (where Couturier has spent almost all of his time) is just broken, and one player shouldn’t be blamed for its problems. Others hold that Couturier has never been used in the right role on the PP, and that explains his scoring issues.

The problem with Defense No. 1 is that Couturier, more than any other forward, has been the common thread over the multiple years of PP2 struggles. That’s not to say that he’s entirely at fault, but he certainly shouldn’t be absolved when he’s been one of the only constants in the unit. As for the argument that he’s never been in the ideal role, I believe that understates the degree to which the Flyers have moved him around the formation. Micah Blake McCurdy’s shot location maps give us a good look into the “role” of a PP contributor, and Couturier’s shot locations have clearly varied from year-to-year.

This isn’t the picture of a player who has been forced into just one spot regardless of results. The Flyers have tried him on the left side, the right side, closer to the point, in Giroux’s spot, and even given him test runs as a netfront presence. Nothing has really worked.

In addition, Couturier isn’t moving on a upward trajectory when it comes to PP production. In fact, his two points (both secondary assists) in over 133 minutes at 5v4 this season was his worst performance of his career. He truly was dead weight on the power play in 2016-17.

But how can we explain the fact that Couturier has turned into such a effective offensive weapon at 5v5 but can’t carry that over to the power play? One theory is that the skills that make him effective in the former simply aren’t as important in the latter situation. Couturier thrives as a disruptor, particularly in the neutral and defensive zones, and excels in winning puck battles along the boards while on the attack. Power plays lessen the impact of his transitional game, as even his relatively strong Controlled Entry percentage (57.48% this year) isn’t as impressive because it’s easier for everyone to gain the offensive zone with possession when the opponent is down a man. That leaves direct, creative shot generation as the main way for Couturier to help the PP2, and it’s never been the strongest point of his game. Even this year, he ranked ninth among Flyers forwards in 5v5 Primary Shot Contributions per 60 in the 68 games tracked, far closer to Read and Bellemare than Giroux and Voracek.

It’s not impossible to imagine that there is some scenario out there that would allow Sean Couturier to succeed on the power play. But with the amount of talent that the Flyers have coming in, I’m not sure why they would continue to try and force a square peg into a round hole. Travis Konecny seems like a ideal fit on PP2; same with Ivan Provorov. The No. 2 overall pick should certainly start out there. Oskar Lindblom seems to have the size and skillset to be a strong netfront option. And don’t forget Travis Sanheim, who might be even better at walking the blueline at the point than Shayne Gostisbehere.

Unfortunately, removing Sean Couturier from the power play probably kills any chance of him living up to the point production expectations of his skeptics. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the right move.

Will Couturier’s unequivocal breakout season ever occur?

For years now, the word bandied about when it comes to Sean Couturier is “potential.” He’s already a great defensive forward, the thinking goes, and that offensive breakout is just on the horizon. Once he has better linemates, or gets stronger in the corners, or figures out the power play, that will be the year that Sean Couturier becomes the 55+ point, Selke Trophy contender that fans desperately want him to be.

But Sean Couturier is 24 years old, and will be 25 in December. This time in 2018, he’ll finally be off the BSH Top 25 Under 25 List that he’s basically owned for the last half-decade. Yet that true scoring breakout to silence all of the doubters still hasn’t occurred.

It’s probably time to re-calibrate expectations for what such a breakout would even entail. After all, Couturier already has “broken out” at 5v5. Freed from the shackles of Max Talbot, Zac Rinaldo, R.J. Umberger and Matt Read, Couturier has established himself as one of the better play-driving centers in the NHL, despite consistently receiving lots of defensive zone faceoffs and regularly matching up with opponents’ top lines. He’s also turned into a solid scorer at 5v5, falling somewhere in the low-end first liner to high-end second liner range. At least at even strength, Couturier has been an above-average 2C at even strength for the better part of two seasons. He also remains a stellar penalty killer.

But the fact is, only the best 5v5 scorers in the NHL even reach 40 points in that situation in a given season. To get to the 55+ territory, a player needs to be supplementing even strength production with power play points, empty net points, and overtime points as well. And I have to question whether Sean Couturier will ever fill those roles on this team. His lack of skating speed makes him a secondary option at best during 3v3 overtime, and after four seasons of horrific point production, it’s getting tougher to imagine Couturier being effective while a man up.

So the only way for Couturier to meet the expectations of his doubters would be to play him extensively in situations where he has not thrived, and hope that something finally clicks for him. This creates a feedback loop, as fans watch him struggle in these minutes and stay convinced that Couturier can’t score, period. It boils down to a simple either/or: either learn to score on the power play, or continue to face criticism for underachieving offensively.

I’d recommend a third route. Remove Couturier from the power play entirely, and station him back atop the PK depth chart. Let him continue to thrive at 5v5, as he has done the past two years, and free him from the expectations that come along with power play minutes. Rather than lock him into a nominal 3C role, the Flyers would be best served giving him a few more minutes at even strength, befitting their most effective forward in the situation.

Assuming Couturier can stay healthy — and the last two injury-plagued seasons felt more fluky than anything considering his pristine health in his first four years — his recent rate stats imply that Couturier should be able to score in the 42-48 point range moving forward, even without regular power play time.

Sure, those totals probably keep him out of the Selke race. But a player who drives shot and goal differentials in the 52-55% range while also killing penalties very well and scoring at a top-six forward rate is an extremely valuable hockey player. Those results may not make everyone happy, but they really should be more than enough of a breakout for the Flyers to be satisfied.


All stats courtesy of Corsica.Hockey, Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com, or the manual tracking work of Corey Sznajder at The Energy Line. On-Ice data derived from Corey’s manually-tracked metrics courtesy of Muneeb Alam.