SEAN COUTURIER has skated into Flyers training camp as a green, 18-year-old lottery pick and possibly could skate back to Drummondville, Quebec, next week despite doing everything in his power to crack Peter Laviolette's revamped roster.
Or, he could be in the lineup when the Flyers painfully watch the Bruins raise their Stanley Cup banner to the TD Garden rafters exactly 1 week from tonight.
For the Flyers, there is zero risk of giving Couturier a 10-game taste of the big leagues to start the season, the maximum number of games before his contract would count toward the team's 50-contract limit. Couturier has little left to achieve in junior hockey. He has already won a QMJHL President's Cup, pocketed league scoring titles and shattered team records once held by Danny Briere.
Minutes for a developing prospect are a lot easier to come by in October than in March. If Couturier struggles, he can head back to Drummondville knowing what part of his game needs work. If he is so undeniably impressive and earns a starring role, the Flyers can find a way to keep him.
At the very worst, Couturier can practice with the Flyers and head back to Canada with a few extra bucks in his pocket.
"I think the more time Sean spends here, the better it is for him - and the Flyers, in the long run," general manager Paul Holmgren concurred yesterday. "He would get to play a tempo that he wouldn't get if he was to be sent back [to juniors]. To be able to skate with NHL players on a daily basis, work with them in the weight room, all of those things are good for him.
"And seeds can be planted on what he needs to work on."
It's a free trial run. Well, almost. They still need to pay the kid.
Couturier being in Beantown next Thursday may end up having little to do with his ability, the Flyers' available roster spots or even the team's trust in him to get the job done. It may have everything to do with the salary cap and whether they can afford his $1.375 million cap hit.
"The cap number is a little bit of a slippery slope," Holmgren admitted.
If Couturier is sent back to Drummondville, he would be wiped off the cap and the 3-year contract he signed last week won't begin until next season. Unless the Flyers call him up again.
It's a confusing loophole, but it's the same one that Brayden Schenn used to play eight games with the Kings - despite spending 23 games on the roster - last year and not have his contract begin until this year. For teams, it's an attractive way to introduce the player to the NHL, further evaluate, and then save a year's worth of his rights.
"He seems to fit in," Laviolette said. "He's smart defensively. When young players come in the league, it's the first thing you look at: Can they win the battles, can they handle the defensive end? We've put him in a lot of situations. He's handled most of the responsibilities well."
So, then, how does Couturier fit under the cap?
That's the money question, no pun intended. The Flyers are once again hamstrung by the salary cap. As it stands now, they have a little more than $175,000 in space on the $64.3 million cap. That's because they were forced to carry more than $1.4 million in paid-out bonuses from last season over to this year's cap - something that will surely hamper them this season.
As of yesterday, Matt Read appears to be a lock, perhaps even taking Andreas Nodl's roster spot away in the process. The Flyers likely will start (but may not finish) the season with Zac Rinaldo on the roster to play the enforcer role with Jody Shelley suspended for the first five regular-season games, even though Shelley will still count against the salary cap at that time.
We're also assuming Schenn makes the team, given his strong camp and ballyhooed hype.
What about the defense? That's the most interesting part of the roster/salary-cap equation. With Chris Pronger's uncertainty - though he has steadily increased his practice participation and the Flyers are "very optimistic" about his Opening-Night status - do they need to carry an extra defenseman like Oskars Bartulis?
If so, that means one forward must go. With a surplus of available penalty killers, that could mean Blair Betts, even with his ridiculous shorthanded-time to even-strength-time ratio, could be the odd man out.
As it stands, the Flyers cannot afford two extra forwards and one extra defenseman to hit the 23-man maximum.
These moves would all just be temporary - depending on how Couturier plays, of course. Once Couturier plays in 10 games, the Flyers would then need to make some sort of move.
Right now, it just doesn't make sense to not take advantage of Couturier's freedom and flexibility.
One option might be to hold Shelley off the roster for 10 games, let Couturier play, and swap the two and their close salary-cap hits when the time comes to send Couturier down. Or, the Flyers could just not keep an extra defenseman and roll the dice with six defensemen to start.
Or, better yet, the Flyers could trade some veteran salary to make room.
"You never know what's going to happen," Holmgren said yesterday with a grin. "I don't think we can assume anything just yet."
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