Sean Couturier Part Three: Where To Go From Here

Over the past few days, I have taken a deeper look into Sean Couturier’s 2014-2015 season. On Tuesday, I examined his credentials as the Philadelphia Flyers second line center. Then, yesterday I dove into a few frequent comparisons that are made to Couturier.

The final installment of this series will be different from the first two. Much of the arguments laid out in the first two articles were based upon Couturier’s statistics. But because, yes, I watch the games, today’s article will focus on observations and build upon those statistics.

There are three people who will be primarily responsible for seeing that Couturier improves next season. First and foremost is Couturier himself. Although he played far better last season than many people believe, there are still a few tangible areas in which a small improvement could pay huge dividends. Second is Dave Hakstol. The Flyers new coach will be the one who deploys Couturier and will therefore have a tremendous amount of power over his development. Finally, there is Ron Hextall. The General Manager is the man who puts the roster together. How he sets up the roster will affect how Couturier is handled.

Areas For Couturier To Improve

1. Skating

Although Couturier is not the terrible skater that some have made him out to be, he still struggles in this area. Ever since his draft year, skating has been of concern for the 6’3″ center. He does not have the speed of Voracek or Read, nor does he have the same level of mobility as guys like Coburn or Giroux.

John Tavares currently leads the New York Islanders in goals and points on the season (valorfaerie/Flickr)
John Tavares currently leads the New York Islanders in goals and points on the season (valorfaerie/Flickr)

Many players who have struggled with their skating early in their careers have gone on to be great players (John Tavares is agreat recent example). If Couturier can get some help from a skating coach and work to improve his stride, this does not have to continue to be an issue for Couturier.

Although his skating may have held him back, when you have skills like his, you can still be a lethal player.

2. Net Front Presence

Couturier’s wrist shot is very good. It is fast and it is accurate. However, Couturier is at his best when he is in front of the net.

Fans, myself included, seem to view the big, “mean” power forwards as the players best suited to be a “net front presence.” It is a job for guys like Scott Hartnell and Wayne Simmonds, not skilled stickhandlers like Couturier.

However, when looking at how Couturier has produced his goals, it seems evident that he was made to be right in front of the net. He needs to be setting screens, making deflections, and making those nifty cross-crease passes.

His skills in front of the net were on display at the World Championships earlier this month. The video below is just one example of Couturier making a beautiful deflection for a goal.

3. Shielding The Puck

One of the greatest attributes Couturier has is his size. That, packaged with his skills and defensive awareness, are what Couturier such a good prospect coming out of juniors. However, there are times when Couturier does not use his size to his advantage.

Jakub Voracek has had positive growth in this area that Couturier would do well to emulate. Voracek has become one of the best players in the league at using his body to shield the puck. Thanks in large part to this development, Voracek is one of the best players in the NHL at maintaining offensive zone possession and is thus a top point-producer.

Couturier is not terrible in this area, but he also has plenty of room to improve.

How does shielding the puck lead to goals? Take a look at the clip below. This particular goal came late in the season, and it was a beautiful display of what we hope to see from Couturier moving forward.

Hakstol’s Assignments

The Flyers new Head Coach, Dave Hakstol, will be instrumental in Couturier’s growth, or lack thereof, in the future. There are a couple of small tweaks that Hakstol can make that would have a profound effect upon Couturier.

1. Offensive Zone Starts

(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As has been made abundantly clear in Part One and Part Two, Couturier started an abnormal amount of 5v5 shifts in the defensive zone. His zone start percentage, 39.75%, was the second worst in the NHL among forwards who played at least 1000 even strength minutes. It is not rocket science to believe that if he is given the opportunity to start more shifts in the offensive zone, he will be produce more points and be viewed as a two-way threat, not just a shutdown center.

“But, but, but… Who will take on those tough minutes?”

That is a fair question. However, it is not a stretch to believe that Scott Laughton, who projects as a sound defensive center with limited offensive upside, could begin to lighten Couturier’s load next season. Also, if the Flyers can rid themselves of some players who do not handle ANY defensive zone starts (i.e. Lecavalier), then that will help even things out for Couturier.

2. Power Play Re-Structuring

First and foremost, I do not think that Hakstol should tamper with the top power play unit. The second unit, however, is what could use some work.

Like point number two concerning Couturier’s improvements, it is vital that Couturier be given more of a net front presence on the power play. This past season, on the second unit Couturier was in a similar position to Giroux on the first unit. That position is a bit awkward for a big lefty like Couturier.

Take a look at this power play goal by Couturier on December 2:

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “David, why use a video of Couturier scoring a power play goal to illustrate a point that Couturier is being used poorly on the power play?!”

Well, the fact is that there was only one video of Couturier scoring on the power play. For a majority of the season he played in that position on the man advantage and that was the only time he scored! He totaled six power play points. Six!

A player with Couturier’s skills should have more than six power play points. Sure, some of the blame for that deserves to go to Couturier. But there should be little doubt that he was not used effectively on the power play. The net-front positions on the second unit were usually reserved for Matt Read, RJ Umberger, or Michael Raffl. Next year, Couturier should be in that mix.

Hextall’s Task

There is really only one thing Hextall should do to Couturier. It may seem simplistic. It may seem to be obvious. It absolutely would affect more than just Couturier.

Hextall needs to rid the Flyers of the players who weigh down their teammates and replace them with skilled wingers. This would help more than just Couturier, and in fact, it should be the job of every GM. But there are ways in which it would specifically benefit Couturier.

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

Couturier has had to spend much of his career competing for playing time against respected veterans like Briere, Lecavalier, and Talbot. These players are all fine men off the ice and have earned the respect that they have in the locker room. However, each player has been given preferential treatment, usage wise, to Couturier (not Talbot as much as the other two).

On the power play, Couturier had to fight for spots with Lecavalier and Umberger. Therefore, he was either kept off of the power play… or forced to play with Lecavalier and Umberger.

Ron Hextall needs to ensure that the Flyers top centers next year have skilled and competent wingers. It would do wonders to add some more skill to the likes of Voracek, Simmonds, Raffl, and Read. If Hextall can deal (or buyout) Umberger and Lecavalier this summer, then it is likely that Couturier would be able to count on solid line-mates from day one.

In case you missed it, you can read Part One here and Part Two here.