Date: June 24, 2011. Location: Xcel Energy Center, Saint Paul, Minn. First round of the NHL draft. The first six selections have been made. Mark Chipman steps up to the podium. The transfer of the Atlanta Thrashers has just been approved. Rumors abound as to the name of the relocated franchise. The large contingent of Winnipeg fans in attendance responds boisterously to the owner’s announcement of the selection by the “Winnipeg Jets.” Mark Scheifele becomes a player who immediately goes under the microscope as the first choice of the new team.
As soon as Scheifele and the Jets contingent leaves the podium, the next order of selection is announced as a pick “the Columbus Blue Jackets transferred to the Philadelphia Flyers.” On the day prior to the 2011 draft, the Flyers stunned the hockey world by trading star center Jeff Carter to Columbus. A key part of the return was the No. 8 pick. Now skeptical Flyers fans and passionate hockey followers from all backgrounds were preparing their microscopes for this selection. As soon as the Flyers called his name, Sean Couturier became a marked man.
Both Scheifele and Couturier have been under pressure since they were drafted. Both were large centers who had put up good but not overwhelming numbers in major junior. Neither player became an immediate star. Both required time for development. It was not until five years after the draft that either player made a significant NHL impact. In the past two seasons, however, their careers have blossomed. They are both key elements on their teams. How do they compare?
They’ve had different roles. Scheifele had a seven-game NHL stint as an 18-year-old and was put on lines with good offensive players. The Jets clearly saw him as one of their scoring leaders when the team matured into a contender. He has put up 60-plus points each of the past three seasons and has been a point-per-game producer each of the past two. In 2016-17, he finished seventh in NHL scoring. Couturier played 77 games in his age-18 season with the Flyers but was placed on a checking line with little power-play time. Prior to last season, he averaged about half a point per game. In 2017-18, it all came together: 76 points in 82 games and a second-place finish in Selke Trophy voting. Couturier has played at this level for one season, while Scheifele has done so for three.
VALUE TO TEAM
Both players have a number of talented teammates up front, but Scheifele and Couturier received more ice time than any other forward on their teams during the 2017-18 regular season and again in the playoffs. There can be no higher compliment than this from the Winnipeg and Philadelphia coaching staffs. In the playoffs, both players were exceptional. Even though his team did not make it to the Cup final, Scheifele finished second to Alex Ovechkin in playoff goals and led the post-season in even-strength goals. Couturier missed one game and part of another due to injury in the Flyers’ six-game playoff loss to Pittsburgh. Despite these absences, he produced nine points while none of his teammates had more than three. They have different styles and different strengths and weaknesses, but both have become the focal points of their teams at center.
I am reminded of discussions at organizational meetings throughout my NHL career about the most important attribute for an NHL player. Coaches and management would vigorously debate the merits of hockey sense, puck skills and character issues. Scouts would overwhelmingly point to skating. Couturier has become a better-than-average NHLer despite being a below-average NHL skater. He lacks speed, and his stride and agility are “clunky.” His anticipation, competitiveness and size combine to obscure this major deficiency. Scheifele is fast, quick and smooth. His skating buys him time and space. Combined with his work ethic and size, his skating vaults him above the majority of NHL centers. Couturier’s skating problems will place a hard ceiling on his potential.
Both players handle the puck confidently and aren’t prone to giveaways. Both are good shot deflectors. If either of them sees a play, they can usually execute it, even if they are off balance. Both have shown quick hands converting rebounds in tight quarters. I see only one significant difference: Scheifele has developed a lethal one-time shot from the slot area. This was the key to his prolific goal-scoring in the playoffs.
Scheifele plays a simple game, based on skating, shooting and working. He is not innovative. He does not “make something out of nothing.” Couturier on his best day cannot skate as well as Scheifele, even when he’s tired. But Couturier overcomes this deficit with well-above-average hockey sense. He makes plays quickly and always seems to be in position both offensively and defensively. He uses his strength and reach to full advantage. Couturier must be getting forechecking lessons from Flyers legend Bobby Clarke, because this aspect of his game is very effective.
When Scheifele plays with Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor, the Jets’ top line often controls the puck, and as the saying goes, the opposition can’t score when you have the puck. But the role of Scheifele’s line is to score. Couturier had to earn his ice time by proving he could go head-to-head against top lines and shut them down. Prior to 2017-18, he had never scored 40 points in a season but had earned Selke votes in all but one year. Last season, Couturier was promoted to the top line where he produced offensively while continuing to shut down top lines. It’s no wonder he finished second to Anze Kopitar for the Selke.
Seven years have passed since that sweltering summer day in Minnesota when Scheifele and Couturier became special draft selections for their NHL teams. The Jets and Flyers have been patient with their development, and both clubs have been rewarded for doing so. Couturier is a consummate hockey warrior who can defend successfully against top players and contribute offensively while doing so. As long as you surround him with speed, he can be an excellent second-line center on a championship contender. Scheifele has emerged as one of the NHL’s top offensive threats. He forces the opposition to play on their heels as they try to defend his speed. He’s a player who complements the best offensive players on a team and is a true first-line center. If you want to win the Stanley Cup in the next few seasons, Scheifele and Couturier could play as your top two centers. However, if you can only choose one of them, do not hesitate. When the other attributes are close, listen to the scouts and always go with the better skater. Speed kills. Choose Mark Scheifele over Sean Couturier.
Tom Thompson has been an NHL scout/director/assistant GM since 1985.
This story appears in the Season Preview 2018-19 issue of The Hockey News magazine.