When the Flyers began their cleanup to last season’s often listless and utterly rudderless second half, there was a lot of talk about leadership and firepower and a summer of uncertainty. The core group might have already run out of time, Jake Voracek not so subtly suggested.
Private meetings were held. Players were allowed to express themselves, and those of us on the outside wishing we could monitor within wondered what Dave Hakstol might have said to his captain, Claude Giroux, or to Voracek, or what Wayne Simmonds might have said to the coach.
Few, if any, of us thought for even a second about what Sean Couturier might have said, might have felt. Few, if any, of us saw this coming: a 24-year-old veteran of six-plus NHL seasons suddenly finding his voice and suddenly finding the game he says has always been in there.
“I told him that I could be more, offensively,’’ Couturier was saying this week about an end-of-season meeting with Hakstol. “That I really wanted to get a better look, better opportunity. … Last year was maybe the first time I maybe expressed a little frustration with the way I was put into situations to succeed. I thought to myself that I’ve waited long enough. It was my sixth year and I really wanted to take a step forward and I felt like that was the only thing missing. And I’m glad I got the opportunity this year. I’ve enjoyed it.’’
Ya think? Couturier scored his 10th goal and 19th point of the season in Thursday night’s 3-1 victory over Chicago. The odd thing is it almost obscures his real value in the game, working like a point guard to create the other two goals, scored by his linemates. Giroux’s ninth goal of the season, at 4:58 of a dominant first period, was the byproduct of some hard work along the right boards, Couturier battling two Blackhawks and popping the puck loose for Voracek to collect and lace a cross-ice pass to the Flyers captain. Later in the period, working the other side of the ice, Couturier used the inordinately long arms of his 6-foot-3 frame to reach around a Chicago defenseman and almost one-hand a cross-ice pass that triggered a lot of pretty passing, a lot of running around and, ultimately, Voracek’s fourth goal.
“I think,’’ Giroux said recently, “that we’re the lucky players playing with him.
“It’s not the other way around.’’
This is not false praise. It’s truth becoming clearer and clearer with each game this line plays together. Last night, facing a Chicago first line that has played together since that infamous Stanley Cup Final in 2010, Couturier and Co. made the trio look like perfect strangers, at least for the first 40 minutes. He, more than the other two, forced the second man to enter his puck battles, creating one great chance after another. He, more than the other two, stymied the vaunted playmaking of Jonathan Toews, at least until the Flyers unwisely took a batten-down-the-hatches approach late in the second and for the entire third.
“He’s a really smart player,’’ Giroux said. “So he’s good at finding ways to get open, finding air. … Hey, make sure you don’t tell him I said he was smart, OK?’’
Secret’s out. As if Giroux’s admiration wasn’t clear already. Rather than being miffed, the captain is playing like a released dove these days, his playmaking and creativity accentuated by Couturier’s 200-foot game. Voracek, too. It’s pretty amazing in fact that, after last night, Giroux (20), Couturier (19) and Voracek (21) have almost identical point totals.
Hakstol was asked if he imagined this when Couturier made his case after last season. walked into his office. “Well, the way he finished the year last year,’’ he said, `He finished very well and was making plays offensively and was playing well on the defensive side as he always has. I think he’s continued that.
“There’s three good players on that line, and they’re all different. They play the game differently, they have different elements, different strengths, but the three of them together — big credit to them — have worked well for our hockey team to this point.’’
The point is an important point. We are but 16 games into this marathon of a season. Still, think of what the Flyers have been through already: Injury seems to have slowed Simmonds after a torrid start, and the absence of top draft pick Nolan Patrick because of a lagging concussion has diluted the formidability and potency of secondary lines. And then there are all the injuries on the blue line – three of their six defensemen Thursday night were 21 or younger.
And yet, here they are, 8-6-2, with signature road wins in Anaheim, St. Louis and Toronto, a home thrashing of Washington, and last night’s mastery of another team often in the Stanley Cup conversation.
One of the oft-stated, off-season goals for this team was to become a much better 5-on-5 team. Yeah, it’s only 16 games, but the Flyers have been that. And Couturier’s emergence as a prime-time talent is the primary reason.