Raise your hand if you thought Flyers center Sean Couturier, defensive specialist, was going to blossom into one of the NHL’s leading scorers in the season’s first month.
I don’t see any hands … oh, wait, in the corner. There’s a guy over there, perfectly coiffed hair, with his hand in the air who looks strikingly similar to Dave Hakstol. Oh, it is the Flyers’ third-year coach.
Give Hakstol props for thinking outside the box. While most of us believed Couturier wasn’t fast enough and wasn’t a good enough finisher to play on the Flyers’ top line — and was better suited as a third-line center — Hakstol saw something else.
He saw a player who, until this season, didn’t develop much offensive prowess because he was centering wingers who didn’t get him the puck in Grade-A scoring areas.
So Hakstol, in what now looks like a stroke of genius, moved Claude Giroux — one of the league’s top centers in his outstanding career — to left wing. That put the 6-foot-3, 211-pound Couturier, whose dad, Sylvain, once had a brief stint with the Los Angeles Kings, between two elite playmakers, Giroux and right winger Jake Voracek.
The results have been breathtaking.
“Jake and G deserve the credit,” said Couturier, who recently replaced Val Filppula on the No. 1 power-play unit. “They’re always giving me scoring chances.”
The numbers support him. Couturier is on a pace for 246 shots, far more than his career high (165) set in 2013-14. In three of the first 14 games, he had six shots three times. Before this year, he had only reached the six-shot mark four times in 416 games.
Couturier, 24, who survived an accidental blindside hit to the head by his former teammate, Brayden Schenn, in Thursday’s 2-0 Flyers win in St. Louis, has been the team’s MVP thus far. Heading into Saturday night’s game against visiting Colorado, he led the Flyers — and was among the NHL leaders — with nine goals, 17 points, and a plus-10 rating. He also had eight assists, and his attention to defense had bolstered the line’s overall effectiveness.
In his six previous seasons, Couturier never collected more than 15 goals or 39 points. He is now on a pace for 53 goals and 100 points.
And while no one expects him to reach those lofty numbers, a 25-goal, 70-point season seems realistic.
“It’s still early in the year, but things have been going pretty well and I’m pretty confident right now,” said Couturier, the player who turned out to be the first-round draft pick (eighth overall) the Flyers acquired, along with Voracek and a third-round selection, in the 2011 trade that sent Jeff Carter to Columbus. “If we keep playing the same way as a line, we’ll get a lot of chances and produce a lot. But it’s still early in the year and obviously teams are going to match lines and pre-scout us.”
“At the same time, if we play the same way, play our way, we’ll create a lot of chances,” he said.
Couturier’s line has been one of the NHL’s best, combining for 18 goals, 31 assists, 49 points and a plus-16 rating in the first 14 games.
“Coots has made us better…at both ends,” Voracek said, mindful that he had a minus-24 rating last season and is now plus-3. He entered the weekend with 14 assists, second in the NHL.
Without being saddled with the defensive ability of a center, Giroux (seven goals, 16 points in his first 14 games) has flourished and is skating with the creativity he displayed earlier in his career. Then again, it helps that Giroux is more than a year removed from hip and abdominal surgery, which hindered his skating last season, when he finished with just 14 goals and a minus-15 rating.
General manager Ron Hextall said one of the reasons he traded Schenn to St. Louis in the off-season was because he thought Giroux or veteran center Filppula could make a smooth transition to left wing. Giroux has made the most of the change, and, barring injuries, figures to stay there for a long time.
“A lot thought went into it, a lot of discussion,” Hakstol said of moving Giroux. “At the end of the day, it made sense for our team and we felt it made sense for all three of them. They’ve all worked very hard to make it a productive line.”
Hakstol credited Giroux for being so open-minded to the switch.
“When your captain welcomes it with open arms, that says a lot about his character,” he said.
Maybe Giroux also foresaw Couturier’s breakthrough season. Maybe he, too, was in the back of the room with his hand raised.