Note: This is the first of a many-parts series previewing each Flyers’ 2017-18 season, going in alphabetical order.
There probably isn’t a more polarizing player on the Flyers roster than Sean Couturier. Half the fan base loves him, and the other half hates him. Not coincidentally, that line is drawn at whether you believe in advanced stats or not.
Since being drafted eighth overall at the 2011 Draft, Couturier has failed to put up more than 40 points a season, but his underlying numbers have always suggested strong shot suppression and play-driving assets. If it wasn’t for injuries, he would have crossed the 40-point line in 2015-16 and maybe even last season.
But injuries slowed the Arizona native down yet again and Couturier finished with 34 points in 66 games, a five-point decrease in three more games from 2015-16. After a strong start in ’16-17, the center missed over a month between November and December with a knee injury. His production slipped upon his return.
However, his best hockey came down the stretch when Valtteri Filppula was acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning at the trade deadline, allowing Couturier to slot in on the third line with Brayden Schenn and Dale Weise. In the last 15 games of the season, the 24 year old potted 14 points.
Couturier is a lock, without a doubt, but Filppula and rookie Nolan Patrick could battle him for the middle position on the second line. If he loses that or a different lineup plan is devised, he’ll be the third-line center, but more on that in the next section.
If Patrick wasn’t in Philly, Filppula would be the team’s second line center, but for the best, he is here. Patrick is likely to make the Flyers, but general manager Ron Hextall and coach Dave Hakstol won’t play him on the fourth line.
The third line is where he’ll go, suddenly giving the Flyers four top-nine centers with three spots. Claude Giroux isn’t budging from the top line and Couturier would be wrongly used on the wing. Filppula, though, as a pass-first player and one who saw some time on the wing previously, will likely make a switch.
What that means for Couturier is that the second line center opening should be his — at first. If everything goes according to plan, Patrick will prove he’s ready for the NHL and more than third-line duties and take that second-line spot sometime next season.
But that’s not a bad thing for Couturier. He excelled in a smaller role to end last season where less defensive pressure from the other team was placed on him.
On the man advantage, Couturier usually plays on the half-wall on the second power play unit. That unit has been a clunker for the past few years, but with new assistant coach Kris Knoblauch running it and more offensive pieces, it could be more productive.
Couturier will, again, be a fixture on the penalty kill and could see even a bigger role with the losses of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde.
The toughest part will be moving on from Schenn, who was Couturier’s linemate for the previous two seasons, his two best offensive seasons. But the Flyers’ offense has more depth and talent than has been seen since the 2013-14 season. It’s entirely possible that Couturier puts to bed the schism between Flyers fans this year, as long as he’s healthy.