Since making the Flyers’ roster in the 2011-2012 season, Sean Couturier was given a fairly defined role on the team. He was the their shutdown center and defensive specialist. Constantly buried in defensive zone starts as well as playing alongside Max Talobt and Zac Rinaldo didn’t give Couturier much of a chance to utilize his offensive skills. There was a lot of excitement at what he might be able to bring to the team after back-to-back 96 point season in the QMJHL. Many had hoped that the young center would have produced a bit more in his first season with the team and have been fairly disappointed in his point production in the seasons that followed. Unfortunately, Couturier has yet to hit the forty point mark in his NHL career, which is seen as a massive failure by many. While he hasn’t been able to put up the offensive numbers many had hoped, he has still managed to make significant strides in his offensive development.
First I want to take a quick look at Couturier’s career numbers and then dive a bit into the current season. In the charts below, I put together some basic stats as well as linemate details. I thought this would help give a decent picture about how he has been utilized and the impact his linemates may have on his production.
Data from war-on-ice and puckalytics
Data from behindthenet.ca
Throughout his career, most of Couturier’s production has occurred at even-strength. I don’t think it’s all too surprising that his highest point total happened at a time where he was getting more offensive zone starts and got to spend the year playing with competent wingers. It’s probably not best for Couturier’s zone starts to ever really be around 50%. Ideally, you might want to cap it at 45% just to give him a bit more of an offensive opportunity. He is a very smart player in the defensive zone and you don’t want to lose that aspect of his game entirely. It would ultimately have a negative impact on the team because there isn’t another player on the roster who can handle that role successfully. In terms of his point totals, spending a season with a healthy Matt Read and Brayden Schenn on his wings may go a long way in terms of his point production. Personally, I was never a fan of putting Schenn on a shutdown line. I think his defensive game is a bit suspect but a combination of Couturier and Read should be able to mask his inefficiencies. At least it might be a bit easier for them to deal with rather than dragging Umberger around for another season.
I thought it would interesting to breakdown Couturier’s production this season by month. I also wanted to see how his monthly point totals looked compared to the amount of games the Flyers had played in the corresponding month. As you can see from the chart on the left, Couturier had a fairly productive month of December. This also happened around the time where Umberger’s game started to pick up a little (it was his most productive month as well), draw your own conclusions if you must. There isn’t a lot of consistency regarding points totals each month. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, sometimes you just have to deal with the regular ebb and flow of an 82 game season.
Now I want to change gears a bit and get away from the numbers and focus visually on how his play has improved this year. All of this focus will be centered around his neutral zone and offensive zone play. I pulled some plays while tracking entries the other night and decided to dig through some of Bob Roberts old vines, as well as mine, to find some older examples for this post. I managed to accumulate quite a collection but there were too many to include here, bummer.
The Neutral Zone
I’ve put out a few articles this year regarding the Flyers’ zone entry numbers. Last year I took my entry and exit data and decided to link them together to try and get a look at how team was doing in transition. Since tracking that data I’ve come to appreciate a lot of the little things players do, especially in the neutral zone. Throughout the season Couturier has appeared to become more and more comfortable carrying the puck through the neutral zone and controlling play. He has done an good job this season maintaining possession once he exits the defensive zone and ultimately turns that into offense. Not only is he maintaining possession through the neutral zone, he is doing it with speed. He’s attacking the opposition and making it hard for opposing players to defend him as he powers his way through the neutral zone to set up the offensive attack.
For the past two season Couturier’s controlled entry percentage was around 48%. He wasn’t carrying the puck the puck through the neutral zone that often and often chose to dump it into the zone rather than carry it. He was doing this whether he was facing pressure from a defending player or not which was very frustrating to watch. Matt Read had always been the driving force through the neutral zone between the two of them. Whether Couturier gained more confidence in this area of the game or was forced to be more aggressive due to Read’s injury the outcome has been great. Through 70 games this year (sorry, I’m behind on my tracking duties) he has a carry-in percentage of 54%. He’s carrying play, creating chances, and becoming a difficult player for teams to defend against. The most promising aspect of this is the fact that he has been able to maintain this success throughout the season. That means even with a healthy Matt Read, he is still carrying the puck and creating opportunities. That’s something to be excited about.
The Offensive Zone
One area of the game where I think Couturier has really taken a step forward is using his body to protect the puck. It’s not that I can recall him ever shying away from contact throughout his career, it’s just not an area of his game that ever stuck out to me. It’s certainly something I’ve taken notice of this year. He has gotten very good at using his size and strength to knock opponents off the puck as well as position his body to protect it in the offensive zone. It seems that more often than not, he is able to do this and either maintain or regain possession and turn it into a scoring opportunity. As the season progressed I find myself changing my view of Couturier and what kind of offensive player he should be. I had always thought that his goal scoring touch would come around. I’m not sure if it ever will and I’m ok with that because the more I watch him, the more I think he is better suited as a playmaker.
Couturier is very good at reading the play and anticipating where players are going to be on the ice. His assist on Ryan White’s goal from the Pittsburgh game covers a lot of areas I talked about in this post. He uses is body to protect the puck from a defender, then draws an opposing forward to him as he carries the puck around the net. The Pittsburgh players all put their focus on Couturier at the side of the net as Ryan White sneaks in undetected. Couturier anticipates a Flyers forward rushing to the front of the net and makes a pass. The Flyers score, Couturier racks up some more points, and everyone is having a good time. Again, these are plays that have been happening all throughout the course of the season. The fact is, they are happening consistently, game in and game out. Just because these plays don’t result in a goal every game doesn’t mean that they aren’t happening and won’t lead to success down the line
I know fans are still a bit frustrated with Couturier since he isn’t scoring goals consistently. I think there may still be some anger lingering from his inability to bury a few of his breakaway chances from a few weeks ago. I completely understand it. Sometimes it’s hard to not let recency bias have an impact on the way you think of a player. Unfortunately, that’s the nature of the sports and the “what have you done for me lately” mindset. I took a look at how Couturier’s even-strength goals have been scored this year.
Most of Couturier’s shots are happening fairly close to the net. He’s scored goals off of rebounds, tip-ins standing in front of the net, and even knocked a puck out of midair by the post. He is doing a lot of work in that dirty areas and his play around the net has been another strong area of the game for him. I will say that the goals he scored away from that area have been one-timers that were a result of a pass on the rush in the offensive zone. Maybe he’ll never be a guy you can count on to score a breakaway, so what. They don’t happen that frequently throughout the course of a game so it’s not something I’d be concerned about.
I don’t see any reason why people should feel disappointed in Couturier’s offensive development this year. I’m not sure he’ll ever be a big time goal scorer but he has a very good ability to read the ice and make plays. He may never be as dynamic a playmaker as Jake Voracek, but he is still very successful at creating scoring opportunities. Would it be great if he put up 50-60 points per year? Of course. I don’t think you need to point to success and failures of some players on some arbitrary number that can sometimes be a direct result of their linemates. Even though his point totals don’t reflect it, Couturier has made great strides in his offensive game this year.