Given the lack of cap space the Philadelphia Flyers currently have, GM Ron Hextall isn’t giving contracts to any Tom, Dick, or Harry. Between handing out extensions to forwards Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek, the Flyers added a combined AAV of $12.58 million starting in the 2016-17 season.
While Voracek’s eight-year, $66 million extension matches his 143 points over the past two seasons, Couturier’s six-year, $26 million deal is equally fair, if not more of a steal for the organization that drafted him eighth overall in 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
How can that be, considering the four-year veteran’s 39 points in 2013-14 were a career-high? As it turns out, there’s more than one answer, even for those who are wrapped up exclusively in offensive numbers.
Couturier’s Valuable Role
After a 15-goal, 22-assist campaign last season, many are still waiting for Couturier to take his offensive game to the next level – at least, that’s the strawman argument advanced by some.
At 22 years of age, the Phoenix-born center has solidified himself as Philadelphia’s top defensive forward, while actually contributing offensively more than his surroundings suggest he should have.
Sean Couturier. 1st line expectations with 2nd line minutes but used as a 3rd liner with 4 line wingers. Nailed it. Flyers.
— FlyersPuckSauce (@FlyersPuckSauce) July 20, 2015
Writing for Philly.com, Jeff Neiburg recently explained what the newly extended forward was able to accomplish last season, despite numerous odds stacked against him:
In his role centering the third line, Couturier was paired a lot last season with R.J. Umberger and Matt Read, two players who struggled offensively.
Still, Couturier tallied a career-high 15 goals to go with 22 assists last season, his fourth in the league. He’s also been pretty durable, appearing in 198 consecutive games, ranking third on the team behind wingers Jakub Voracek (226) and Brayden Schenn (208).
Couturier’s role as the third line center last season was indicative of his greatest attribute: defense. Skating alongside Read and Umberger, the 6’3″, 197-pounder’s 48.32 percent five-on-five SAT percentage bested his linemates by 1.33 percent in Read, and 1.83 percent in Umberger.
While it’s common for a shutdown line to weigh in with an SAT percentage below 50 percent, Couturier’s value has been further displayed with the minutes he’s logged.
Couturier’s 18:23 of average time on ice ranks ahead of teammates such as Wayne Simmonds – who notched 50 points last season – and Brayden Schenn, a fixture on the team’s second line.
Of his 18:23 of average ice time, 13:24 of it was logged during five-on-five competition. In fact, the former first-round pick’s average shorthanded time of 2:29 per game not only ranked fourth among teammates who played in 39 games or more, but also led all forwards.
“He did a lot of good things,” said Hextall, per Tim Riday of CSN Philly. “Did he play where we hoped? Probably not quite. But it’s not like Sean had a disastrous year. When you get a big guy who’s a smart player, he’s gifted offensively and a shutdown guy, you really have something. We really like Coots.”
Perhaps Couturier would have played to the level, at least offensively, had it not been for those treacherous zone starts.
The young veteran’s minus-22.14 percent relative percentage of offensive versus defensive zone starts were the team’s second lowest, behind defenseman Braydon Coburn, who appeared in only 39 games before being shipped to Tampa Bay at the trade deadline.
In other words, Couturier has been asked to pull a rabbit out of a hat without touching its ears. Despite the reality of it all, the last person to complain about the succession of speed bumps is Couturier himself.
“I’ve been playing 18 minutes a game the last two years,” Couturier told NHL.com in July. “Whatever they want me to do, I’ll do my best at the role they give me, and what they want and what they expect from me. Whatever I can do to help the team win.”
Despite all the factors, including Couturier’s defensive role, more is expected of him. While some, if not many, voice their frustration in what appears to be a stagnant growth on the offensive side of his game, many lose sight at just how young he is.
And that’s not the only thing that works in his favor moving forward.
The Hakstol Factor
When Dave Hakstol was named as the Flyers’ new head coach back in May, much was made of the former University of North Dakota’s bench general’s lack of NHL coaching experience.
Obviously, that didn’t deter Hextall from nabbing Hakstol as Craig Berube’s replacement; considering Hakstol’s experience with younger talent, including a crop of present day stars in the league, it seems the second-year GM is pushing all the right buttons.
“It was one of the attractive things, that Dave has coached an age group from really 18 to 24, 25,” said Hextall, via CSN Philly’s Tim Panaccio. “That was one of the things you think about, yes. We have a lot of young players on our team, but we also have a number coming, so that was a factor for sure — how has Dave developed young players, how has he integrated young players into his lineup, how you bring players together.
“I think one of the strongest points that he has is his ability to push people. He pushes players. He gets the most out of his players. Again, you’re going through your long list of things and it’s one of the things you think about. He’s a very well-rounded coach.”
For a coach whose yet to man an NHL bench in a competitive game, the 47-year-old Drayton Valley, Canada native has already left his mark on the league, a list that extends beyond the widely mentioned Jonathan Toews, T.J. Oshie, and Travis Zajac.
As Kieran McCauley of the Daily Local News pointed out back in May, Hakstol’s coaching style mirrors Couturier’s best quality:
Hakstol is labeled as a defensive-minded coach and that is something the Flyers desperately need. Their defense has been beyond inadequate for the past few years and it’s a key reason why they haven’t won a playoff series since 2012.
Although Hakstol’s list of former players now thriving in the NHL are quite diverse in style, role, and position, the one common theme that should make Couturier flash his trademark toothless grin is success.
“He looks like a great guy,” said Couturier, per Wayne Fish of The Morning Call. “Well prepared, has a vision of what he wants, how he wants the game played. I think we can do a lot of good stuff with Dave and hopefully we can prove that this year.”
The possibility of new linemates this year shouldn’t only make the Flyers more diverse in matchups, but make the 22-year-old center more productive offensively as well.
“One of things you are going to find from me is not a lot of labels in terms of lines,” Hakstol said, via Panaccio. “We’re gonna try to put together four good lines that work together well and help us be successful.
“Continue our growth and keep stepping forward. He’s a tremendous young man. Very reliable player on the ice. He is another young player who has played a lot of games at this level, but he is still growing and developing at this level. I’m looking for him to take another step forward.”
Six year commitment to Couturier allows for growth into a full time 2nd line center (though he basically is at this point). #Flyers
— Anthony Mingioni (@AnthonyMingioni) July 28, 2015
The possibility of centering the Flyers’ second line will undoubtedly give the defensive guru more offensive zone starts, leading to more scoring chances.
Should Couturier be delegated to his traditional shutdown role, an offensive bump may be modest, if made at all. After all, his presence on the penalty kill remains vital to its success.
But while nothing is guaranteed in the league, or life in general, Couturier’s previous four years with the Flyers place him ahead of Hakstol’s batch of NHL stars today in regard to the effect Philadelphia’s new coach has already showcased.
Couturier certainly won’t be the only Flyer to benefit from the former college coach’s arrival, but at $26 million, he could be considered underpaid sooner rather than later.