For the second consecutive season, Sean Couturier will finish with more than more than 30 goals and 70 points, more than twice as many goals and points as in any of his first six seasons. His career-high 32 goals and his 74 points this season should stand taller than the 31 and 76 from last year, since he had virtually no training camp, and since this year’s team was demonstrably worse.
There is more to Sean Couturier. If the Flyers expect to contend in the next five years, there has to be more.
Couturier is a 26-year-old former No. 8 overall pick who went straight to the NHL as an 18-year-old in 2011, shut down Evgeni Malkin in the playoffs that season and scored a hat trick in Game 2 to help boot the Penguins from that postseason. Couturier is the best two-way player the franchise has seen since the Flyers traded Mike Richards the summer they drafted Couturier. Over the past three seasons, he has been the best player wearing the Orange and Black, period, and that includes Claude Giroux, a Hall of Fame player still in his prime.
Coots could be an All Star. What must change?
He must start faster.
“I tend to have slow starts,” Couturier acknowledged Wednesday.
“I think it’s just me, sometimes, overthinking," he said.
That is not his nature. A prolific scorer in junior hockey, Couturier made his NHL bones as a defense-first center. Now, as a team jells, he looks before he jumps -- if he jumps at all.
“As the year goes on, I get to know the league,” he explained. "The players’ tendencies. I just feel better about the game. I get to know the league better as the year goes on.”
That has been obvious in four of the past five seasons. Couturier managed only eight points in the first 23 games of 2014-15, the first 24 games of 2015-16, and the first 19 games of 2016-17. He had just five points through the first 14 games of this season, an average of 0.36 per game. He averaged 0.67 points per game in the next 61 games. The Flyers were 33-36-11 in those games.
When Couturier hit the ground running last season, with 19 points in his first 16 games, the Flyers went 8-6-2.
He pointed out that whom he skates with, and how well the team defends, and how good the goalie is (or isn’t) can influence how many chances Couturier gets. Injuries happen, too; his knee sprain last summer set him back a bit. But he’s a first-line center, and even he can’t figure out how he failed to record any assists in the first month, especially with Giroux on his line.
“I wish I’d have had a better start, going 12 games without an assist -- which is kind of tough to do,” he acknowledged last week. “Maybe if we’d had a better start, been more consistent earlier in the year, we’d be in a better situation.”
Their situation, of course, is that they were eliminated from the playoffs Saturday at Carolina. This assured them a seventh straight season without a playoff series win, the longest stretch in team history. Couturier has been on the team for eight years.
Has that stretch been Couturier’s fault? Of course not. The Flyers have lacked stability, focus, and goaltending for years. They’ve burned through four coaches since Couturier arrived, and Scott Gordon remains an interim coach. There soon might be a fifth. They interrupted their own rebuilding project last fall when they fired general manager Ron Hextall less than five years into the process, then handed the tools to Chuck Fletcher.
For most of that time, Couturier was viewed as an exceptional two-way player with modest offensive abilities, and he seemed content: “A few years ago, guys were saying I’m just a third-line shutdown guy.”
“Look, I could have started trying to dangle guys at the blue line. Once in a while, it wouldn’t have looked good. Probably would’ve gotten a better rep, but, at the same time, it wouldn’t be helping the team for the amount of time it works,” he said. “It’s not what I really wanted. Obviously, I wish I would’ve been a top-six forward my second or third year. I could’ve started risking things. Showing what I could be. At the same time, I don’t think I would’ve helped the team."
That’s where Couturier’s judgment needs to change. A little more risk can mean incredible reward. Will he?
“I’d rather be the conservative, solid player,” he said. "When you’re making the right plays all the time, consistently -- I take pride in that. Why would I change that?”
Because the team needs it.
Couturier is careful to stress that his effort does not increase as the season progresses, even if his production does.
“I want to be good from day one, from the first game. I train for that,” he said. “Sometimes, you just overthink the game earlier in the year, whereas as the year goes on, it just comes naturally.”
So, no matter how badly the team might need more aggressive play from him, don’t expect Couturier to start trying to “dangle guys at the blue line.”
“I’ve got to stay the solid, consistent two-way player. I believe in my offensive ability, whereas, I don’t need to risk to get offense. I know I’m going to get chances. It’s been working. I don’t think I should change that,” Couturier said. “For me, it’s all about getting to know the league better. As you get older, you get that advantage earlier in the year.”