Before last season, the Philadelphia Flyers used the eighth pick of the draft – which was courtesy of the Columbus Blue Jackets – on 19-year-old, highly-touted forward Sean Couturier. The front office of the Flyers knew Couturier had the potential to be a special type of player but never imagined quite an immediate impact from the QMJHL standout.
Couturier made such an impression during training camp that he started the season with the Flyers, rather than traveling north to compete with the team’s AHL affiliate, the Adirondack Phantoms. He quickly earned his first point and his first goal within five NHL contests but as the season went on, it was Couturier’s defense that got him noticed by both his teammates and the league.
While coach Peter Laviolette made it known on numerous occasions that Couturier carried himself like a veteran and played like one of the team’s best defensive-minded forwards; it was his mentor – future Hall of Famer, Jaromir Jagr – who had this compliment to say at the end of last season:
“I don’t think, during my hockey career, I’ve seen someone so good defensively at such a young age. I would say he’s our best defensive forward at age 18, 19.”
Couturier shut down Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin – who went on to win the Art Ross Trophy – in the first round of the playoffs, holding the Russian-native to just three goals and eight points in the six game series.
On the offensive side of the ice, Couturier was quiet – other than his first career playoff hattrick in Game 2 – finishing 11 playoff games with just four points. It seemed like a layover from the regular season, where he finished with just 13 goals and 14 assists – but the importance of his defense outweighed the offense and it was immeasurable for the orange and black.
Now, with the NHL lockout in full swing, players are scattering like cockroaches to different leagues, whether in Europe or North America. Couturier began training camp with the Phantoms and seems poised to start his second professional season in upstate New York, rather than Philadelphia but an AHL stint could really benefit Couturier, as he looks to avoid a sophomore slump and become a more well-rounded NHL superstar.
A few months – or perhaps a season – in the AHL would certainly humble Couturier. He might be one of the rising stars in the league but his game has holes, holes he needs to work on in order to get better. With former Flyers coach Terry Murray behind the Phantoms’ bench, Couturier has an excellent teacher to help him take the next step in his career, especially on offense – but that doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time.
“In junior … I had 96 points two years in a row, and it was still defense-first,” Couturier said in a recent interview with CSNPhilly. “I know I have the offensive tools to produce. It will come. I have to be patient with my chances.”
One of the biggest things Couturier needs to do is eat something – pasta, a cheeseburger, anything. He needs to add more muscle through diet and an enhanced gym regiment. The extra time off would have been a perfect time to begin both. At the draft, the biggest issue as to whether or not Couturier was NHL-ready was his 6-foot-4, 195 pound frame. It rarely hindered his game last season but to put it into perspective Eric Lindros was 6-foot-4 and weighed 237 pounds. Adding 20 pounds would go a long way for Couturier and his ability to use his stature to his advantage. Give it time.
On the ice, the biggest concern with Couturier might be his ability to win faceoffs. Let’s face it, the Flyers have not had a dominant faceoff guy in over a decade, so they can use all the help they can get. Last season he won 47 percent of his faceoffs, though he did improve in the playoffs, bumping it up to 53 percent. With the pressure of the smaller AHL town much less than that of a NHL city, he might not feel quite as under the microscope in the Adirondacks, allowing him to focus and take more faceoffs than usual.
With training camp just under way, many of the Phantoms and Flyers are still shaking off the cobwebs – even Couturier. The facility is split as the Phantoms and Flyers often practice only with their respective squads, making the AHL switch a bit challenging, though it appears to be more of a mental preparation, as he’s already setting himself apart as one of the best players participating. Scouts are already saying he looks to be in mid-season form, both on the ice and with interviews off the ice.
Couturier has the talent and the skill set to become one of the elite players in the NHL, he just needs to fine tune his game and work on the minor flaws which separate the good players from the great ones. For now he can work on those flaws and attempt to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump in the AHL, at least until the NHL get its act together.