Putting Sean Couturier’s Offense Into Context

After a sterling rookie year where Sean Couturier finished 10th in points among rookies and played strong defensively, expectations going into the 2012-13 season were high.  But in the past two seasons, many fans have been frustrated with Couturier’s perceived lack of progress offensively.

Flyers’ Strong Center Depth

In the current NHL, depth and strength at center has been a common denominator of recent Stanley Cup winners.  The Flyers currently boast some of the best organizational depth at center in the league.  They are particularly loaded at the NHL level, with Claude Giroux and Vinny Lecavalier occupying the top-six center positions, forcing Sean Couturier to the third line and Brayden Schenn to the wing.  In the minors, Scott Laughton is lighting the OHL on fire.  With Laughton knocking on the door of the NHL, many have clamored for the Flyers to trade Couturier to address weaknesses in the organization, specifically for a puck-moving defenseman.

Through all the speculation and rumors surrounding Couturier, Paul Holmgren has maintained Couturier is untouchable in trade talks.  Holmgren is deserving of criticism for a number of his personnel decisions, but refusing to trade Couturier is not one of them.

While it is true Couturier has not lit the world on fire offensively, he has done very well for himself when you consider the context and circumstances in which he has played his first three seasons.

Sean Couturier’s Linemates & Usage in Philadelphia

The combination of Philadelphia’s center depth, Couturier’s inexperience, and his defensive acumen has relegated him to bottom-six duties so far in his NHL career.  As a result, he has not been placed with offensively talented linemates, limiting his offensive output.  In his three NHL seasons, his two most common linemates each year have been Max Talbot and Zac Rinaldo (11-12), Max Talbot and Matt Read (12-13), and Matt Read and Steve Downie (13-14).  None of those linemates have ever scored 50 points in a single season.

(Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)
(Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

In addition to playing with weak offensive linemates, Couturier has not been placed in favorable situations to allow him to score points.  Instead, the Flyers have decided to utilize his defensive abilities and have him face and neutralize the opponent’s top players.  In his career, Couturier has started just 40.3, 32.1, and 41.5 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone.  In each year, he has managed to finish his shifts in the offensive zone 45.4, 44.7, and 48.9 percent of the time for an average increase of around 8% each year.  This illustrates two points.

The first is that Couturier effectively helps the team transition from playing defense to creating offense and keeping the puck in the opponent’s end.  This is especially impressive considering he generally does not play with very talented linemates that are good at creating and sustaining offensive pressure.

The other takeaway is that Flyers coaches are supremely confident in Couturier’s ability to defend in his own zone.  Giving heavy defensive responsibilities to a young forward like Couturier shows the Flyers’ coaching staff are supremely confident in his abilities.  Coach Craig Berube has waxed poetic about Couturier’s defensive abilities, trusting him in high-pressure situations on a regular basis.

Although his time on the power play has increased with time, he is still not a regular on the first or second unit.  Among Flyers forwards, he has ranked 10th, 10th, and 9th in power play time on ice per game.  Conversely, he has been in the top three in shorthanded time on ice per game among forwards each year.  Combined with the fact that his even-strength assignments are usually defensive, Couturier has not been in a position to succeed offensively.

Couturier Compared to Recently Drafted Players

The criticism Couturier has received has been based on his offense, not his defense.  The biggest problem with that criticism is that the offensive expectations placed on Couturier are unrealistic considering his usage.  There have been a number of comparable players to Couturier drafted since 2006.  My criteria for selecting comparables was that they are centers, top 15 picks, and were touted as being good two-way players when they were drafted.  With those criteria in mind, the players that fit the profile are Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Josh Bailey, Lars Eller, Cody Hodgson and Matt Duchene.  Here is a breakdown of those players over their first three years in the NHL:

[table id=251 /]

The above chart is a breakdown of even strength scoring between Couturier and six notable contemporaries.  Compiled using Behind the Net, the Weighted Avg. ESP/60 (WA ESP/60) column illustrates the even strength scoring ability of each player over the first three years of his career.  It is a weighted average(by season) of how many points each player scores per 60 minutes on the ice at even strength.  The only exception is Jordan Staal, whose score (1.6000) was calculated using just his second and third NHL seasons because data was not available for his first season.  The “First Year” column is how many NHL seasons passed after a player was drafted before he played his first NHL game.  This is an important number to consider because significant developmental strides can be made in a few extra years in juniors, and where the player stands in his development needs to be factored in to provide context to the WA ESP/60 column.

Using WA ESP/60 puts each player on a level playing field to examine their offense.  It normalizes ice time per game and games played by showing it on a per 60 minute basis where the player is on the ice.

Analyzing the Chart

Looking at the above chart, Jonathan Toews jumps out as being by far the most impressive player.  This is no surprise considering Toews is considered one of the best players in the league.  Not only is he the best offensive player listed, but he’s also the best defensively.

Sean Couturier Flyers
(Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE)

When you consider the final three columns of the chart, it is clear Jordan Staal is the closest comparable player to Couturier.  Both entered the league immediately after they were drafted and have similar WA ESP/60 totals.  Their linemates are fairly comparable with Staal’s being more established players.  Factor in linemates and it is likely that their WA ESP/60 would be essentially the same.  In their first three years, both were used extensively in key defensive and penalty killing situations.  Through the first three years of their  respective careers, Couturier and Staal have been eerily similar.

Offensively, Couturier should be considered better than Eller, Bailey and Hodgson through their first three years.  His numbers are far above Bailey’s and slightly ahead of Eller’s.  However, Eller spent two extra years in juniors before playing in the NHL, so Couturier’s advantage is greater than the numbers indicate.  Despite Hodgson’s numerical advantage, Couturier should be considered better because Hodgson played two additional years in junior and has played with two all-star linemates in Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville.  Even when you consider Duchene’s strong linemates, he was clearly better than Couturier in his first three years.

Defensively, Couturier is at worst third.  Toews is clearly No. 1, Staal likely No. 2, and Couturier No. 3.  After Couturier, there is a pretty clear drop-off in demonstrated defensive ability at the NHL level through 3 years.

The Big Takeaway

The point?  Couturier’s “offensive woes” are nothing more than a failure to provide context to the numbers.  Compare him to similar high draft pick, two-way centers, and he stacks up very well.  While he has not exploded offensively like Toews or Duchene, his offense has been solid considering the circumstances, and he has shown better defensive skills than most.

Paul Holmgren’s refusal to deal Sean Couturier is the correct move.

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