Sean Couturier has taken his game to another level this season.
The Philadelphia Flyers forward has been one of the biggest surprises of this season; not just on the team, but around the league as well. Sean Couturier has blossomed from a middle-six shutdown center into a force on the top line.
Couturier has always been one of the best defensive forwards in the league. He has been relied upon as a shutdown center for the Flyers since he came into the league as a 19-year old and has gotten better every year. He was still playing with inferior wingers, only getting limited time with forwards that belong in the top-six like Couturier, but got thrown a bone here and there with Wayne Simmonds or Jake Voracek on his wing.
He began last season on a line with Voracek and Travis Konecny, and they thrived, but that eventually got broken up and Couturier was once again used primarily as a shutdown center. He had gotten a taste of what it was like to play with skilled wingers and then ended the season with a bang. He wanted more.
Couturier asked, and the Flyers answered. Since the start of the season he has been the top-line center with Claude Giroux by his side. Moving the face of the franchise to the left wing seemed questionable at the beginning, and it was a risk, but Couturier answered the bell. He has been a legitimate top-line center this season. He is still bringing his defensive game, but has added another level to his offensive game. He has already reached career highs in goals and assists, and they are still climbing.
For fun, let’s take a look back at some of the players that Couturier had to play with in recent seasons. This season he has been blessed with Giroux and one of Voracek, Simmonds, or Konecny on his wing. Those players are miles ahead of his previous wingers. He has gone from playing with the likes of Matt Read, R.J. Umberger, Steve Downie, Dale Weise, and Nick Cousins, to playing with Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, and Travis Konecny. Even last season when he started with Voracek and Konecny, playing 233 minutes with them, he then played 149 minutes with Brayden Schenn and Dale Weise, and 107 minutes with Matt Read and Nick Cousins
There have been signs of Couturier’s offense over the years, but the jump that he took this season was a bit higher than most. If we look at the surface stats, the goals, assists, and points, it’s been a big jump for couturier. He’s gotten some puck luck this season, which has certainly helped, and he’s finally found that finishing touch.
His goal scoring rate has improved to 1.27, from a career-high 0.85 last season, and he’s having his second-best assist rate (1.07, 2nd to 1.26 in ’15-16) this season as well.
He is putting more points on the board, and his ability to get the puck on net has helped spark that. Whether it’s the confidence from scoring, playing with better linemates, something else, or a combination of everything, he has been getting more shot attempts on net, shots on goal, and has a higher expected goals for than ever before.
*ixGF60 is multiplied by 10 to show up on the chart. i.e. This season he has an ixGF60 of 1.02, shown as 10.2 on the chart.
If a player makes this big of a jump in offensive production, there is usually some sort of usage reasoning behind it. Obviously Couturier is playing with better players, but sometimes higher lines get more favorable zone starts or easier matchups on home ice. Couturier has gotten neither of these things.
In fact, he is starting more shifts in the defensive zone (compared to offensive zone starts) than in either of the last two seasons. He also has the best possession-rate of his career. In 2013-14 and 2014-15 he had two of the least favorable deployments in the league, and he still managed to just about get up to a 50 CF%.
He is still one of the centers that gets more defensive zone starts, and he is still able to put up the offensive numbers despite that. Couturier starts 37.35% of his shifts in the defensive zone, which is the 14th most out of 159 forwards with at least 500 minutes played. He is one of three top centers with a points per 60 minutes of two or higher, a corsi for percentage of 50% or higher, and a zone start ratio of 50 or lower. Of the three Couturier is behind Auston Matthews in P60 (2.72 to 2.34), but has the lowest ZSR (43.81) compared to Matthews’ 47.76 and Anze Kopitar’s 46.92. Kopitar barely snuck into contention with a 2.06 P60, though.
Couturier has the second-lowest ZSR of any forward with a P60 over two. The lowest? His right hand man, Claude Giroux.
In simpler terms, Couturier is doing it all. He is still playing fantastic defense, shutting down top players when he has to, and he’s turning around and scoring on them at the other end of the ice. Gone are the days of Couturier not being able to finish, or being thrust into a bottom-six shutdown role with aging veterans. He is now a top-line center, and a damn good one at that.
Couturier asked for more responsibility and he is giving the Flyers more than anyone ever expected. He is breaking out in a huge way, and many people, myself included, think Couturier is among the favorites for the Selke Trophy. Personally, I think he is the frontrunner.
The breakout season that Sean Couturier is having is garnering attention from around the league. He, Giroux and Voracek combined to make one of the best lines in the league in many people’s eyes, and now the defensive centerman is bringing the offense, which is getting him into the conversation for the Selke Trophy. The Selke Trophy is an annual award given to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game. However, the players that have won it have needed good offensive numbers to go with their defensive acumen.
Winning the Selke Trophy is about a great two-way game, but it takes more than that. In the past 11 seasons, only six different players have won it. Rod Brind’amour won it in 2006 and 2007, Pavel Datsyuk owned it from 2008 to 2010, and since then it’s been Patrice Bergeron’s to lose with him winning it in 2012, 2014, and 2015. It’s hard to break into the club, but once you’re in it, you’re there to stay. Couturier has a great chance to get into that club this season.
If you went strictly by the defensive aspects of the game, Couturier should’ve been in the running for it every season. He actually was among the top ten in voting in 2014 (9th) and 2016 (8th), but his offensive numbers weren’t there with just 39 points in each season, including an injury-riddled 2015-16 campaign that hindered his chances. That brings us to this season, which is coincidentally another season ending in an even number, and Couturier is on pace to nearly run away with the trophy.
He is on pace to have more points than any of the past eight Selke Trophy winners. Prior to that, Pavel Datsyuk dominated the competition to the tune of 97 points in back-to-back seasons. Since him it’s been a lower pace, with Kopitar (74 in ’15-16) and Kesler (73 in ’10-12) the only winners to get above 65 points.
Even if Couturier slows down his pace, to two-thirds or one-half of what he is at right now of a point-per-game, he is still up there among the past Selke winners.
Patrice Bergeron has owned the Trophy in recent years, but Couturier is primed for a takeover this year. Even if Couturier’s pace slows down to half of what it is right now, he’d still have a higher point total (72) than Bergeron in ’14-15 (55) or last season (53).
Couturier looks pretty good against the recent historical trends as well.
The points are definitely there, but the possession numbers are too. Couturier’s current relative corsi for of +7.3 would be higher than every past winner’s, sans Bergeron. It would be higher than the historical averages though, as Kopitar’s +0.7 balances it out a bit.
Before the season you can almost already name at least two of the three Selke Trophy Candidates for the year. You know Patrice Bergeron will be there, along with some combination of Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Kesler, and maybe another guy like Mikko Koivu last season. This season, it’s almost the same. Besides Couturier, the two biggest contenders are Bergeron and Kopitar.
Couturier has the upper hand in most arguments, but Bergeron will always have a case to be made. He has won three of the last four trophies and will be the favorite among some of the writers that might not see Couturier all that often.
Couturier (42 points in 42 games) is ahead of Bergeron (32 points in 35 games), but both of them are actually behind Kopitar (44 points in 42 games). However, points are not the main argument when it comes to the Selke Trophy.
I wanted to look at how these three were doing so far this season in some of the overall aspects of the game. At 5v5 play Couturier is arguably the best.
Bergeron has a lot of points (P60), but he isn’t being used as much and he is getting a lot of offensive zone starts. He is starting more in the offensive zone than the defensive zone, by quite a lot, and he’s getting more offensive zone starts relative to his teammates. On the other hand, Couturier might be slightly behind him in scoring at 5v5, but he is being used a lot more and in tougher situations. Couturier has the best possession numbers, in both shot attempts and expected goals, while being given the most difficult zone starts of the three.
Kopitar simply has the points argument, and that’s about it. Even so, 13 of his 44 points have come on the power play, while only 8 of Couturier’s 42 have.
It’s going to take one hell of a season to get a newcomer onto the stage to win the Selke Trophy, but Sean Couturier has what it takes. He has broken out with a fantastic season so far, and there’s no reason to think that he won’t be able to continue his strong play in the second half. He is doing it all for the Flyers, and is one of the main reasons that the team is in the playoff hunt (and technically in a spot due to point percentage).
Couturier is tremendous at even strength play, has earned his way onto the power play, and is still one of the team’s best penalty killers. He can score a goal when needed, and then just a few minutes later make a great defensive play to preserve the lead late in the game. We’ve seen that many times this season, including against Toronto when he scored late in the third period then killed off about 20 seconds of the clock in the final minute. He also picked up two points and then preserved the lead late with a good defensive play in his own zone, leading to a clear, and then got his third point of the night after winning a board battle in the neutral zone.
Those sequences described above are just snippets of what Couturier has been able to do for his team. He’s been one of the most hardworking players over the past few seasons as he worked his way up the lineup. The breakout season he is having is a testament to how well-rounded of a player he is. The defensive aspect of his game was always there and is always going to be there, but the offense this season has helped people realize how great he is.
Sean Couturier is showing that he is a legitimate top-line center and he’s well on his way to a Selke Trophy nomination.
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