Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: Can Couturier Grow His Offensive Game?

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Through his first three NHL seasons, Flyers center Sean Couturier has rapidly emerged as one of the better shutdown forwards in the league. Last season, Couturier finished ninth in the Selke Trophy balloting. That may not sound impressive, but the 21-year-old was the youngest forward in the NHL to finish in the top 20 of the voting for the NHL’s best defensive forward.

Entering his fourth pro season, the big question for Couturier is how much further he is capable of elevating the offensive side of his game. The Flyers want to see more than flashes of offensive assertiveness from Couturier next season. They believe he is capable of doing more in the attacking zone than he’s done for the majority of his 205 NHL regular season games and 18 playoff games to date.

Flyers head coach Craig Berube laid the gauntlet down in the spring shortly after the team’s elimination from the playoffs in seven first-round games by the New York Rangers. Couturier failed to post a point in that series.

“Sean is a good player,” Berube said. “He played pretty good this season, but he is capable of improvement. As with everybody, he has to push himself to get to the next level.”

Recently, general manager Ron Hextall reiterated a similar theme. He told CSN Philly and HockeyBuzz writer Tim Panaccio that, while Couturier’s defensive acumen and unselfishness are commendable, the organization wants to see the player become more of a regular offensive contributor.

“Typically, a young player learns the defensive part after the offensive part. Coots in juniors was equally good on offense as defense, but up here, obviously, his defensive game is ahead of his offensive game,” Hextall said to CSN Philly. “There’s another level. A couple of levels for Coots and you’re damn right, we expect it. He needs to push harder north. It’s a little bit of a mentality, a little bit of an attitude, but there’s going to be expectations placed on him that haven’t been [there] up to this point.”

Couturier’s offensive numbers last season were not horrible for a third line player in his role. During the 2013-14 season, Couturier produced 13 goals and 39 points while dressing in all 82 regular season games. He did so while starting just 42.9 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone; lowest on the team after Adam Hall. Moreover, Couturier faced the toughest difficulty of competition among all Flyers forwards and was second only to late-season blueline acquisition Andrew MacDonald in that metric.

By way of comparison, teammate Brayden Schenn produced only marginally more offense last season with 41 points (20 goals, 21 assists) in 82 games. Digging a little deeper inside the numbers, however, one finds that Schenn had the benefit of starting 55.2 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone and facing the “easiest”opposition (although no NHL-caliber competition can rightfully be described with that adjective) from a puck possession standpoint among the Flyers top nine forwards.

Schenn’s output of seven more goals than Couturier last season was a rather significant difference in Schenn’s favor even with the advanced-stat context added. However, their virtually identical overall point totals suggest that, under less favorable conditions for creating offense, Couturier actually accomplished a little more offensively with his linemates — namely Matt Read — than Schenn did with his.

It is also worth keeping in mind that Couturier played through a sports hernia for much of the second half of last season. He underwent surgery over the summer.

Come next season, Couturier’s defensive workload will not decrease. He will continue to face opposing teams’ best attacking lines and will start a lot of shifts in the defensive zone. Hextall, however, does not think this should automatically prevent the player from posting significantly improved offensive numbers.

“I think the best way to play defense is to have the puck,” the general manager told Broad Street Hockey. “So yeah, ok, Coots starts in the defensive zone more, but there’s no reason his offensive numbers can’t go up. You have control of the puck. That’s the best way to play defense rather than chasing it all over the place. Again, Coots needs to command more of himself and I know Craig is gonna command more of him.”

Couturier seems to welcome the challenge.

“I want to get more opportunities this year,’’ he told the Bucks County Courier Times. “And I want to capitalize on those opportunities when I get the chance to create some offense or get a big goal. I want to be one of those guys eventually. Maybe this year I can some more opportunities.’’

In his three NHL seasons to date, Couturier has had a tendency to go off on brief offensive hot streaks. Typically, these runs last for about four or five games.

As a rookie, he had an impressive midseason five-game goal-scoring streak (three of the goals were beauties) despite skating on the fourth line at the time. He had a five-point in four game (1G, 4A) outburst in late March to early April of his second NHL season and had scored two goals in the first six games of the regular season before a 27-game goal drought that finally ended amid the five-game point streak.

Last season, Couturier had a two-goal, four-point game in Detroit to cap off a four-game streak where he exploded for four goals and six points. Two weeks earlier, he had a three-game point streak in which he produced one goal and four points.

In the bigger picture, however, Couturier still goes long stretches — sometimes 10 or more games at a time — where he contributes very little on the offensive side of the blueline. A realistic goal for the 2013-14 season is to reduce the frequency and duration of the dry spells.

Couturier was a robust scorer in junior hockey, apart from rapidly emerging as an unusually adept defensive player for someone his age. However, he did stagnate a bit in his offensive growth and did not find a higher level in his Draft year.

Apart from a strength-sapping bout of mononucleosis early in the season, the lack of continued offensive progress from the year before his Draft eligibility to the end of the 2010-11 season knocked him down from the preseason consensus top pick in 2011 to where Philly grabbed him with the eighth overall pick acquired along with Jakub Voracek in the trade that sent Jeff Carter to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

As an NHL rookie in 2011-12, Couturier produced 13 goals and 27 points. For an 18-year-old player spending a significant portion of the season on the fourth line at even strength and not receiving much power play time, that was a promising offensive start to his NHL career.

In Couturier’s second pro season, the NHL lockout caused the cancellation of the first half of the season. Along with Schenn and other young players on entry-level deals, the Flyers assigned Couturier to the American Hockey League.

Couturier’s play for the Phantoms was rather uneven. Both he and Schenn had some dominant games but just as often seemed a bit distracted or even disinterested. Ultimately, Couturier posted 10 goals and 28 points in 31 AHL games while Schenn had 13 goals 33 points in 33 games. Those totals were respectable but not spectacular. The organization had hoped to see a little more consistency from both players.

However, during his stint with the Phantoms, Couturier did gain some pro-level experience playing on the point on the power play. He had done so a bit at the junior hockey level as well, but this was a new challenge for him against professional-grade opposition.

After the NHL lockout ended, Couturier scored two goals in the first six games of the Flyers schedule. He scored a deflection goal against Buffalo in the second game of the season and a fluky goal against Tampa Bay where he threw the puck at the net from the corner and goaltender Anders Lindbäck misplayed it into the net (Couturier also scored a similar goal in 2013-14). Thereafter, he fell into the aforementioned 27-game goal drought.

When all was said and done, Couturier produced just four goals and 15 points in 46 NHL games in 2012-13. That was a disappointing rate of offensive output no matter how the numbers were sliced and diced with advanced stats.

Entering last season, the Flyers wanted Couturier to get his offensive development back on track. He did to some degree, but the feeling lingers that Couturier is still capable of more.

Contrary to what some have said, this process is not simply a matter of the player receiving more power play time. Couturier is a player has often looked indecisive when he has been given NHL power play time. He has actually been more of a threat at even strength.

As such, he is going to have to prove he actually deserves more power play time and earn more offensive zone starts — and then do something more with the opportunities when he gets them. Likewise, there is no question that Couturier is a fine penalty killer. Nevertheless, he’s capable of turning a few more counterattacks into goals and assists.

Couturier has added muscle since his rookie year and initial concerns over his strength have dissipated. He has improved on faceoffs but is capable of pushing his winning percentage to at least the break-even point.

Skating-wise, Couturier will never be a speedster. As such, he is going to have to compensate with power and his considerable hockey sense. Lack of speed need not prevent a big, strong forward from producing solid point totals if he has the other requisite skills in place.

For instance, Michal Handzus has always been a below-average skater for an NHL player. Nevertheless, as a 22-year-old second-year NHLer with the St. Louis Blues, he was the top runner-up for the Selke Trophy while also producing 25 goals and 53 points. When Handzus first joined the Flyers in 2002-03, he compiled 23 goals and 44 points while playing a third line role that season behind Jeremy Roenick and Keith Primeau. The next year, Handzus was moved up to a little more of an offensive role, producing a career-high 58 points in Ken Hitchcock’s heavily defensive-oriented system. Primeau took on more of the shutdown responsibilities.

In the next season or two, is Couturier capable of reaching the 20-plus goal mark and flirting with the sorts of points totals that Handzus produced with the Blues and Flyers in the early portion of his lengthy NHL career? I don’t see why not, as long as Couturier remains healthy. For one thing, Couturier is most certainly capable of beefing up his 7.9 percent shooting percentage from last season to something much closer to the 11.2 percent efficiency he had as a rookie.

Additionally, Couturier has the benefit of playing with a capable running mate in Read. Couturier’s most regular linemate is himself a fine two-way player. The two players have balanced each other off nicely and have good chemistry. Read offers speed that Couturier lacks while Couturier brings size that Read lacks.

It will be interesting to see who the third member of the line will be next season. Right now, the two most likely candidates seem to be either R.J. Umberger or Michael Raffl. A darkhorse might be Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. Last season, the Couturier played some of its best hockey in early December when Steve Downie was the third member of the line.

For a stretch of a couple weeks in November to early December, Downie added an element of tenacious forechecking and sandpaper to what Couturier and Read respectively brought. This coincided with offensive hot streaks for Couturier and Read that made the trio the Flyers most effective line for a little while.

Thereafter, Downie continued to struggle with physical and medical problems and was mostly ineffective when he did play, with a high rate of bad penalties to top it off. Couturier and Read remained a solid duo but it was clear they could still use a third regular linemate to elevate the work of the entire trio.

This post originally appeared on www.hockeybuzz.com and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.

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