Not many 18-year-olds make the NHL. Even fewer are tasked with shutting down one of the best players in the league during the playoffs. But Sean Couturier proved he wasn’t like most 18-year-olds.
While fellow rookies Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Adam Henrique acquired more points and more attention during the regular season, Couturier – who turned 19 in December – earned something harder to achieve: his coach’s trust.
One of the hardest things for young players to master is the defensive part of the game, and most coaches make sure to shelter their young guns until they are good and ready to handle the challenge. But the Philadelphia coaching staff quickly learned that Couturier was more than ready. As the season progressed, they started giving him increasingly harder defensive challenges. By the end of the season Couturier became a mainstay on the penalty kill and was tasked with shutting down the opposition’s best players.
Once the Flyers realized Couturier could handle himself defensively, they buried the rookie in the back end. No other Flyer started a higher proportion of their shifts in the defensive zone. Yet despite playing against the opposition’s best players and being handed the toughest defensive responsibility, Couturier thrived. The Flyers gave up the fewest number of goals per 60 minutes when Couturier was on the ice and he was second on the team with a plus-18 rating.
Now Couturier is matching up against the league’s probable Hart Trophy winner, Evgeni Malkin—how’s that for a first taste of playoff action? Through the first three games, the league’s second leading goal scorer failed to register a single tally in three Pittsburgh losses. Malkin did break out in Game 4 with two goals, but a 10-3 score suggests that there was plenty of blame to go around. That’s definitely not all on the youngster.
The big rookie’s strong play has even prompted teammate and future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr to compare him to another Hall of Fame player. In a Twitter conversation with Seth Rorabaugh of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jagr said, “I would say he’s our best defensive forward. Age 18-, 19-year-old. Ron Francis was kind of like that.”
Couturier has a long way to go before fulfilling the Francis comparison; the rookie ended the regular season with only 27 points, which is a far cry from the 1,798 Francis finished his career with. However, during these playoffs Couturier has shown the dynamic offensive ability that convinced Philadelphia to take him eighth-overall in last year’s entry draft. In Game 2, Couturier scored a hat trick and added an assist. Those goals came at important moments too. The first two erased Pittsburgh leads and the third made it 7-5 with less than two minutes to play, effectively killing the Penguins’ comeback chances.
Couturier has been so good against the Penguins that the only Philadelphia forward averaging more ice time is Claude Giroux. That’s pretty good considering Giroux scored over 90 points this year.
When the Flyers traded Jeff Carter to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Jakub Voracek and the eighth-overall pick, they hoped to free up some cap space, and if everything goes right, they also want to get even better in the future. Well, it looks like the future is now for the Flyers. Couturier forced his way onto the Flyers roster out of training camp and has worked hard to earn progressively more ice time. He is showing all the makings of a big, strong, two-way center, one which is already making fans forget about the loss of Jeff Carter.
At one time Couturier was the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, but scouts found enough flaws in his game that he slipped all the way to the eighth spot. Couturier may not have been initially happy on draft day, but there’s no doubt that the Flyers are ecstatic.