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With the shackles off, Couturier showing he's more than a shutdown center

Sean Couturier's focus on responsible play led many to believe he wouldn't produce big totals in the NHL. His nine goals and 15 points in October suggest otherwise.

When Team North America announced its roster for the World Cash Grab of Hockey™ in 2016, you may recall there was a raging debate that centered on whether the team would have been better off with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins instead of Sean Couturier.

It was a gutsy move to pick Couturier, particularly given the fact that Edmonton Oilers coach Todd McLellan was coaching the team and Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli was part of the management group. By picking Couturier over Nugent-Hopkins, McLellan and Chiarelli knew they were both risking a repeat of the Martin St-Louis decision with the 2014 Canadian Olympic team. So it definitely spoke to their admiration of Couturier and his willingness to do the less glorious, but essential work, that they opted for him over ‘The Nuge’. 

The North America braintrust justified the move, one that was endorsed by none other than Scotty Bowman, by saying that in order for that team to have success, somebody had to do the dirty work that so many young players are unwilling or unable to do.

“Todd said, ‘Listen guys, somebody has got to kill penalties in this group. Not everyone can play the power play,’ ” Stan Bowman said at the time. “And my dad agreed and that’s when Couturier’s name came up. Todd had him in the World Championship and my dad said, ‘He plays an important role on the team and it’s not an easy role and not too many young guys can get enough confidence from their coach to match up and play defense and to take faceoffs and do all that. So if you have a coach here who likes a player and is familiar with him, maybe he’s not the first name that comes to mind, but you have to listen to your coach on this one. He likes the guy and I’ve watched him play and he’s a good player.’ That helped crystalize things for us.”

Things are crystalizing quite well for Couturier these days now that he’s showing he’s more than just a shutdown guy. Flyers’ coach Dave Hakstol put Couturier on the first line with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. He boldly moved Giroux to the wing on that line and the result has been stunning – the three linemates find themselves atop the team���s scoring list with Couturier leading the team in goals with nine and in second in points with 15. As usual, Couturier leads the team in even-strength points, with just one of his 15 coming on the power play.

There hadn’t been too many players in Philadelphia more polarizing than Couturier in the past couple of seasons. Those who liked his game pointed to the same attributes that Scott and Stan Bowman, Chiarelli and McLellan saw when they chose him for Team North America. His detractors always lamented the fact that he couldn’t seem to produce offense, even though he was given plenty of opportunity to do so on the power play. Both sides had their merits. Couturier’s power-play goal Monday night was his first in 82 games, but you simply cannot overlook the fact that since the 2015-16 season, Couturier has 78 non-power-play points, which puts him first on the Flyers in that time span ahead of Giroux, Voracek, Wayne Simmonds and former Flyer Brayden Schenn.

What Couturier is doing at the age of 25 is proving that he’s an adaptable player who can handle any role given to him. Elevate him to a scoring role and put him with two ridiculously talented players and he’s going to be able score. That might sound easy, but it’s not. Couturier adds an element of size down the middle of that unit and has opened his untapped potential as a scorer, using that size and reach and shot to convert goals from Voracek and Giroux, two of the more talented playmakers around.

Anyone who has tracked Couturier’s career knew he had this kind of production in him. In 2009-10, the year before the Flyers drafted him eighth overall, Couturier led the Quebec League in scoring and followed that up the next year with a second straight 96-point campaign en route to being the league’s most valuable player.

Here’s a good comparison. In his last season of junior hockey, Guy Carbonneau had 182 points and he followed that up with back-to-back seasons of 87 and 124 points in the American League. But he never scored 60 points in the NHL because he knew that in order to thrive, he had to concentrate on being a defensive specialist. Had he had the shackles removed, there’s no doubt Carbonneau could have been a very good offensive player in the NHL.

And that’s the point here. Couturier is becoming more of an offensive player because that’s what is being asked of him. That’s the mark of a truly special player. In six previous seasons, Couturier has never scored as many as 40 points. He might have that many goals this season if he keeps this up. We should not be surprised by this.

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