Sean Couturier's first two NHL seasons could not have been more different. The question facing the Philadelphia Flyers and their 20-year-old center as he enters his third is which version is closest to the real thing.
Couturier, selected by the Flyers with the eighth pick of the 2011 NHL Draft, made the team as an 18-year-old. By the end of the season, he had developed into their best defensive center, capable of playing against the opposition's top players.
The best example came in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when Couturier blanketed and frequently frustrated Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin, holding that season's Art Ross Trophy winner to eight points in six games in the teams' first-round series, with three of those points in one game.
Couturier had four points in 11 playoff games, became the first rookie since 1945 to have a hat trick in a postseason game, and was a plus-2. That followed a regular season when he scored 13 goals and had 27 points in 77 games, along with a plus-18 rating that was second on the team.
Heading into last season, the belief was Couturier was ready for an increase from the 14:08 of ice time he earned as a rookie and that he had earned time on the power play.
"There is no question that expectations always grow with a young player," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. "You expect more, and players expect more of themselves as they mature and gain more experience. They learn and they play in different situations and expand their roles on the team."
Couturier's ice time increased to 15:53 per game, but his production sputtered. He scored two goals in his first six games, then didn't score again for more than two months. He finished with four goals, 15 points and a minus-8 rating in 46 games.
Opinions on what happened varied. Some blamed it on the lockout; Couturier started the season with the Flyers' American Hockey League team, the Adirondack Phantoms, where he had 28 points in 31 games and received premium ice time. But when the NHL season started, Couturier was shifted back to a somewhat lesser role and never adapted.
"It was a messed-up year in a lot of respects," Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said. "We had some guys start the year with the Phantoms playing … a lot. And then they come to the Flyers when our season started and their roles changed, ice times changed."
The change didn't help Couturier; the harder he worked to find an offensive spark, the more his game struggled. In addition to his lack of offense, his defensive play slipped and his success rate on faceoffs dropped from 47.0 percent to 43.9.
"[My role] should be the same as last year," Couturier told CSNPhilly.com. "A solid two-way player who takes cares of details and my offense will come. I know I have the offensive tools to produce."
With Vincent Lecavalier's arrival in free agency, it's likely Couturier will be pushed back into a defensive role similar to his rookie season. However, he'll be expected to help supply offense.
Though expectations remain high, Laviolette said he understands Couturier is 20 years old and knows he has to be careful how much pressure he places on the third-year player.
"There is a time to be firm and also a time with young players where you talk to them and understand their situation and where they're at and help them find their confidence and find their game," the coach said.
Couturier knows he can do more and wants to do more. He had back-to-back 90-point seasons in his final two seasons of junior hockey, so he has proven he can produce offensively.
"I'd like to contribute a little more," he told CSNPhilly.com. "But at same time we have a lot of talent in this room. Be patient and figure out my offensive role."