I’ve been a big supporter of Sean Couturier since his rookie year because it’s rare to see such a young player display such defensive prowess. While his offense has taken a bit longer to come around, it’s important to remember the unique situation Couturier found himself in after his selection at #8 overall in the 2011 NHL entry draft. Teenagers in the NHL are rare, especially teenagers who make their pro teams immediately following the draft. Couturier was the youngest Flyer to step on an NHL rink since Luca Sbisa in 2008 and immediately showed amazing defensive skills for an 18-year old with only junior hockey experience. But like most fan bases in the northeastern part of the country, Flyers fans aren’t known for their patience and Couturier’s sophomore slump ignited trade rumors and whispers of the ‘B‘ word. Those whispers have disappeared this season as Couturier’s offense has blossomed while he continues to cement himself as a future Selke candidate. He’s elite and he’s going be a Flyers for a very long time.
Couturier’s reputation in junior hockey wasn’t as a shutdown center, but an elite scorer. In his final two seasons with Drummondville in the QMJHL, he had back-to-back 96 point seasons, in 68 and 58 games respectively. Junior hockey is a big leap away from the pros, but Couturier at least showed some signs of ability to score at the next level. In his rookie season with the Flyers, he scored 13 goals (with 14 assists) in 77 games, certainly a promising total for an 18-year old rookie. But in the following shortened season, Couturier’s scoring dipped to 15 points in 46 games and questions arose about his offensive ceiling at the NHL level. So why did Couturier’s offense taper off? A few reasons to consider:
- Couturier had some of the worst line mates you could find. Last season, his four most common line mates were Max Talbot, Matt Read, Mike Knuble, and Zac Rinaldo, with a little bit of Adam Hall and Jay Rosehill mixed in. Now Matt Read is a good scorer, but Talbot, Knuble, and Rinaldo combined for 12 goals over the entire season despite having high shooting percentages (Talbot at 12.2, Knuble at 12.9, and Rinaldo at 20%… yes Rinaldo only took 15 shots on goal last season). Other than Read, none of Couturier’s most common line mates had anything that resembled offensive talent. Once Couturier starting working with Read towards the end of the season, he managed 8 points in his last 15 games.
- Couturier’s line mates may have had decent shooting numbers, but he did not. Couturier shot only 5.3% last season, a big drop from the 11.2% number from his rookie campaign. Despite this drop, he actually took shots at a higher rate last season compared to 2011-12. Couturier took 116 shots over 77 games in his rookie year, an average of 1.5 per game. Last season, he took 75 over 46 games for 1.63 per game. He actually improved his ability to get shots on net, but his goal totals suffered because of poor shooting luck. He may not shoot 11.2% of the course of his career, but he’s certainly not a career 5.3% shooter.
- It’s pretty tough to score when you don’t start in the offensive zone much, right? Couturier had the second lowest percentage of offensive zone starts of any Flyers forward at 32.1%. Only fourth line/PK expert Adam Hall saw fewer shifts begin in the offensive zone. And not only was Couturier starting his shifts in his own end, but he was facing some of the toughest competition of any forward on the team.
Sean Couturier’s offense dipped last year due to bad line mates, bad shooting luck, and defensive zone starts. Plus, as I often had to remind friends and family, HE WAS ONLY 20 YEARS OLD! Growing pains were inevitable in Couturier’s development since he skipped the minor leagues. But there were small glimpses of progress last season, both visually and statistically, if you looked in the right places.
In the past few weeks, Sean Couturier has shown flashes not just of consistent offensive play, but dominant play in all zones. Since being paired with Matt Read and Steve Downie, the Flyers “third” line has become a force. Couturier has 12 points in his last 15 games and still faces the toughest competition the opponent can throw out. Couturier is getting more offensive zone starts this year (42.4), but still begins most shifts far away from the opponents’ net.
So how good is Couturier defensively? Let’s pair him against his opposition for best defensive forward – the last four Selke winners. Jonathan Toews, Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Kesler, and Pavel Datsyuk are four of the best defensive centers in the NHL (although like most things people vote on, winning doesn’t mean you were the best – Bergeron should have beaten Toews for the Selke last year). I used Rob Vollman’s Player Usage Chart to see how Couturier stacks up against these four. The answer: pretty damn well.
Couturier faces tougher competition on average than Toews, Bergeron, or Kesler and start in the defensive zone more often than any of them. He doesn’t get the ice time of Datsyuk or Toews just yet (although that’s been changing under Craig Berube as he played 23:33 in Tuesday’s win over Washington and 25:43 in Sunday’s shootout loss to the Caps, tops among forwards in both a games), but he’s making an impact. Despite facing the toughest competition with the worst offensive zone start percentage, Couturier’s still in the blue on this chart, meaning the Flyers are out-shooting their opponent when he’s on the ice. Looking at these numbers, you could argue that Couturier bests all four of these star shutdown centers when it comes to neutralizing the other team’s best players.
The Flyers will likely need to trade a young forward for a defenseman in the near future, but you can bet against that forward being Couturier. He’s signed to an extremely team-friendly deal for the next two years and seems to get better every week. With Matt Read and Steve Downie, Couturier is on pace for a career high in points and has upped his shots-on-goal per game average to 1.97. He also become legally able to buy beer in the United States earlier this month. Other GMs bring up his name in trade discussion for a reason, and it’s the same reason Paul Holmgren is quick to veto any proposal involving him. Sean Couturier is on his way to becoming a star in this league, time to sit back and enjoy the ride.
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