Silver Lining for Sean Couturier

Published on December 11th, 2012

Phantoms Provide Second Year Center More Opportunities To Display Talents

By Anthony Mingioni

The general adage is “Once you get to the Show, you never want to leave.”

It’s an understandable sentiment and if this were any other hockey season, Flyers’ second year center Sean Couturier would be skating in an NHL arena near you.

But this is unlike any other season because there is no season…at least not one yet, which leaves Couturier and other young players who are still on NHL entry level contracts left to swap chartered flights for the fumes of the open road.

The current state of the National Hockey League lockout as of late November is an obvious source of great consternation for teams, players, and fans alike, but if there is a silver lining to be observed in the dark clouds, it has created opportunities for young players who may have cracked NHL rosters last year.

When the Flyers drafted the Drummondville Voltigeurs center eighth overall in the 2011 NHL Draft, the general scouting reports indicated that he was a tantalizing prospect with size and advanced two way aptitude for a player in his age group. Had it not been for a bout with mononucleosis during the 2010-2011 season, it was entirely possible that he might have been a top two or three selection.

It’s not often that a team trades off a core scoring forward in his prime as the Flyers did with Jeff Carter, but the return of Couturier and projected top line winger Jakub Voracek has proven itself to be worth the risk involved.

Certainly Couturier’s first season in the NHL was one to remember. After making the club out of training camp, his defensive skills were on full display in the team’s opening night win in Boston. Head coach Peter Laviolette put him out on the ice late in the contest to protect the Flyers lead, remarking after the contest that he was his best defensive player.

Couturier remained in that role for much of the regular season, earning the coaching staff and his teammate’s trust and garnering more ice time. He finished his rookie campaign with a solid 13 goals, 27 points, and a plus-18 rating with an average TOI of 14:08 per game.

He saved his best performance for the Flyers first round series against Pittsburgh when he regularly drew the league’s most valuable player in Evgeni Malkin who only scored one even strength point while he was on the ice.  But perhaps even more importantly, Couturier showed the flashes of his scoring capabilities when he registered his first career hat trick in the Flyers 8-5 victory in Game Two.

It’s those qualities that the Flyers are looking to cultivate while Couturier spends time in Glen Falls during the lockout. After playing a season of top level hockey, riding the buses of the American Hockey League (AHL) might seem a step back based on the circumstance, but in reality Couturier is getting a chance to show what he can in a lead role.

Fostering that development is long time NHL head coach Terry Murray.  Murray, who presided over the Eric Lindros-John LeClair era Flyers and more recently, the Los Angeles Kings, comes with a reputation for instilling defensive discipline in his charges through use of a puck support based system.

While that might seem like it runs counter to Flyers’ head coach Peter Laviolette’s more up tempo style, both systems emphasize speed and creativity. Murray wants his players to be active when they have fore-checking and counterattacking opportunities and to be engaged in puck battles along the boards. It is a system that is built well for a player of Couturier’s particular strengths and can cultivate the areas of his game that are still developing.

Couturier for certain has great respect for the lessons that his coach is trying to impart.

“He has a ton of experience,” Couturier said. “He’s been in every situation you can think of as a player, coach, assistant coach, a player. He can definitely help me to refine my game, that’s for sure.”

As of this writing, Couturier has focused on his playmaking ability and is trying to extend beyond his prior role as a shutdown center.  At the 15 game mark, he has six goals and 15 points and has played primarily on a line with fellow Flyer Brayden Schenn. Their chemistry together has been palpable as Schenn was third in the AHL in scoring with nine goals and 22 points.

Winger Jason Akeson recently rounded out the trio on the line and has enjoyed his time playing to the right of Couturier, especially in the aftermath of the Bridgeport game.

“Our line had some good chemistry there. Playing with Coots is a real treat. The guy’s a good player in the NHL so it’s really exciting to play with him. The power play was clicking tonight. It’s the guys I’m playing around. I like to make plays and when they finish them off it makes you look good.”

Murray has provided opportunities for Couturier to diversify his own game. In order to improve his faceoff taking abilities, the coach has put him on draws in all three zones while continuing to hone and refine his instincts in that area.

Recently he earned a chance to run the point on the power play. The Phantoms had a notable spike in efficiency numbers with the man advantage during Thanksgiving week, especially in their 5-1 victory over Bridgeport on November 21 when they scored three goals on seven opportunities.

During that contest, Couturier notched two points (a goal and assist) while on the power play. About a minute and a half after winger Harry Zolnierczyk’s very early goal into the second period, he moved into position across the slot during a 5-on-3 advantage and drew Tigers goalie Kevin Poulin over from left to right. Quickly wheeling around, he found an opening for a quick slap shot that caught Poulin by surprise.

While it is likely that Couturier will return to the role of the Flyers shut down center once the lockout ends, the work he is doing in Adirondack will go a long way towards moving him into a prominent role with the NHL club in the near future.

It’s the silver lining that he and other young NHLers who are plying their trade in the AHL are holding on to.

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Anthony Mingioni covers the Philadelphia Flyers and the National Hockey League for Sportsology and Center Ice Philly Magazine

You can follow him on Twitter: @AnthonyMingioni or contact him via email at anthonymingioni@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Posted by D on December 11th, 2012, 18:22

    “While that might seem like it runs counter to Flyers’ head coach Peter Laviolette’s more up tempo style, both systems emphasize speed and creativity.”

    Having watched Murray in action for years, I can say that creativity was not high on the menu. Unless he’s changed, his system is far more structured.