With all due respect to Claude Giroux, who is the straw that stirs the Flyers and is having a sensational season, center Sean Couturier gets my vote as the team’s first-half MVP.
Couturier has always been one of the NHL’s best defensive forwards, and that hasn’t changed. What has changed is this: He is also an elite scorer these days.
The transformation has been stunning. It’s like a light-hitting, slick-fielding shortstop — such as former Phillie Freddy Galvis — suddenly batting .330 and challenging for the batting title.
Entering the weekend, Couturier had more goals than Connor McDavid, more than Patrick Kane, more that Auston Matthews.
More than Sidney Crosby and Brent Burns combined.
More, in fact, than most NHL players. Heading into the weekend, he was fourth in the league with 23 goals — eight more than his personal best before this season — and his all-around game has been the top reason the Flyers are still in the playoff hunt.
He defends against the top players every night and has been among the faceoff leaders. When the all-star selections were made, Couturier was the only NHL player with all three of these stats: at least 23 goals, at least a plus-14 rating, and more than 40 points. Yet, he was somehow left off the NHL all-star team.
Shame on the NHL.
“I really think he deserves to be there, even in my place,” said Giroux, the Flyers’ lone all-star representative. “If there’s one guy that really deserves it, it’s him.”
Couturier, who turned 25 last month, downplayed his all-star snub.
“It’s not really disappointing,” he said of what would have been his first selection. “I mean, it’s tough being an all-star. If you look at the roster, everybody in our division, they kind of deserve to be in there. Good for them. It would have been nice, but it’s not something I’m too worried about.”
Couturier’s development is connected to the way coach Dave Hakstol has used him, putting him on the top line with wingers who have a pass-first mentality. For most of the season’s first half, Couturier has had Giroux and Jake Voracek — who at the midway point, were the NHL’s best two playmakers – as his wingers. (Travis Konecny recently replaced Voracek on that line.)
It is wrong, however, to think Couturier has flourished this season just because he has had quality wings by his side most of the time.
His blossoming actually began late last year, when his wingers were primarily Dale Weise and Brayden Schenn. In his last 20 games last season, fully recovered from a knee injury that sidelined him for more than a month, Couturier gave a glimpse of the future, collecting 17 points and a plus-18 rating.
“I got healthier, felt better, and getting a chance to play with Schenner — a good top-six player — helped,” Couturier said. “And with Weiser, we had some good chemistry and it definitely worked out at the end. I definitely felt my game got back to where it should be at the end of last year.”
His confidence carried into this season.
“After finishing strong like that, I wanted to get off to a good start . I wanted to get a chance to get a bigger role offensively,” he said. “I got the chance and I’m enjoying the opportunity.”
Since March 1 of last season, his pus-32 rating is second in the NHL, and only Nikita Kucherov (55 points) and McDavid (53) have more even-strength points than Couturier (51) in than span.
As for this year, there’s no denying the chemistry that Giroux, his new linemate, has developed with Couturier.
“He’s helped a lot,” said Couturier, who somehow didn’t make the all-star team but could win the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward, an honor that has had offensive production sneak into the equation in recent years. “He’s a guy who can make plays. You give him the puck and you kind of find the open area and he’ll find you for sure. You have to have that trust instinct with him. Even if the play is not quite there, [you have to believe] he’ll be able to force it through a guy or make that extra play that creates a chance. You need to be ready when you play with a guy like that.”
Couturier has been more than ready. It’s a shame the NHL didn’t notice.