Brian Smith | PhiladelphiaFlyers.com
/ Philadelphia Flyers
Amazingly enough – it’s stunning, really – you have to go back to the lockout season of 2004-05 to find a player who led the Phantoms in scoring that ever had much more than a cup of coffee in the NHL after doing so. That was R.J. Umberger, and it’s debatable that he’d even have been in the AHL that year if the NHL had been in business. Look back before that, and the next most logical candidate goes back 20 years to Peter White, who played 158 of his 220 career NHL games after leading the Phantoms in scoring for three consecutive seasons from 1996-99. And the last player before that, believe it or not, might be Al Hill, who led the Maine Mariners in scoring in 1977-78 while earning the start of a 221-game NHL career.
There are caveats to the statistic. Claude Giroux would have led the Phantoms in scoring in 2008-09 – might have led the whole league, actually – but at Christmastime the Flyers decided he’d had enough seasoning and brought Giroux to the NHL, never to return. Patrick Sharp might have had a shot at the team lead in 2003-04, but he split the season almost evenly with the Flyers.
Other young studs, like Eric Lindros, Simon Gagne, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, and Sean Couturier, were NHL-ready from the start and either didn’t play for the Phantoms at all or did so just in a transitional phase. Several Phantoms who developed into solid NHL players did so for reasons other than scoring, such as Dennis Seidenberg and Joni Pitkanen, and obviously Antero Niittymaki.
The point is that it hasn’t often been the case that extended scoring success on Flyers’ farm teams has translated to success at the NHL level. Jason Akeson led the Phantoms for three straight years, but that hasn’t stuck in the NHL, at least not yet – Akeson is still giving it a go, playing this season with the Buffalo Sabres organization. Jared Ross led the Philadelphia Phantoms two years in a row, but only played 13 games with the Flyers and is now playing professionally in Germany. Some Phantoms scoring leaders were veterans who did so on the downside of their careers after already playing in the NHL. Others were outstanding minor league players, but that’s as far as their career advanced.
Nick Cousins, however, is on a mission to break that cycle. Cousins is in his second consecutive season of leading the Phantoms in scoring. (He actually could soon be passed by Taylor Leier, another player threatening to break this cycle.) Cousins has shown a steady upwards trend in his offensive statistics over the past three seasons, and really over his entire career since joining the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League in 2009. He posted 32 points in 67 games for the Soo in 2009-10 and doubled down to 68 points in 68 games the following year before the Flyers took him in the third round of the 2011 NHL draft. He further improved to 88 points in 65 games in 2011-12, and then finished his junior career with an eye-popping 103 points in 64 games in 2012-13.
In the AHL, it’s been a similar progression – 29 points in 74 games his first year, followed by 56 in 64 games last year (plus an All-Star spot) before he was called up for the last month of the season when R.J. Umberger went out for the year in March. This year, Cousins has posted 38 points in 38 AHL games, along with another All-Star nod and a brief November call-up.
“I think my first year there I had a little bit of growing pains, which happens for many young players coming from junior,” Cousins said. “So I learned a lot about the pro lifestyle and what it takes to be a professional hockey player. Ever since then, I’ve taken care of my body a little bit better and I’ve been approaching the games a little bit differently. You’ve got to be at your best every night.”
Part of his development with the Phantoms has been the counsel of a lot of hockey wisdom – first fromTerry Murray, his head coach for the first two seasons, and then Scott Gordon, who took over this year. And all three years have included Riley Cote, the Phantoms assistant who through sheer will played his way from the ECHL to a 156-game NHL career with the Flyers.
“They’ve been great for me,” Cousins said. “I’ve had some good talks with [Gordon] about my defensive zone play, faceoffs, where I need to improve. They’ve been huge for me. They want us to be successful just as much as we do. I’ve got to give them a lot of credit for my success down there.”
The most recent summons to Philadelphia came on February 5 when Sean Couturier went on the shelf for a month with a lower-body injury. Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said at the time that the team would need to replace Couturier “by committee,” and there’s no doubt that Cousins has been on that committee.
“Everybody’s got to do a little bit,” Hakstol said. “For Nick to step into that role, he’s been a good, competitive two way player. He hasn’t tried to do too much, yet he’s played with confidence. For his part, I think that’s been very important.”
Upon sliding into the lineup on February 6, Cousins looked like he belonged. He played 9:25 in the game, got off a shot, and helped fill the void not only of Couturier, but Wayne Simmonds, who missed most of the contest after an early match penalty. The next day in Washington, Cousins picked up his first NHL point with an assist. Two games later, he scored his first NHL goal and also added an assist in the 5-1 win over Buffalo. He added another goal Saturday in Montreal, as well as a shootout goal. After 11 games last year resulted in no points for Cousins, his 13 games so far this year have resulted in three goals and two assists. On the two-game jaunt to Canada, Cousins played the most minutes he’s played in the NHL – 17:31 in Montreal and 15:47 in Toronto.
And consider that in the Toronto game, with Claude Giroux unavailable due to an upper-body injury, Dave Hakstol had to pick a center to start overtime with Giroux’s usual OT-mates of Jake Voracek and the other Flyers rookie that has the attention of the hockey world right now, Shayne Gostisbehere. Hakstol chose Cousins, and it paid off with Gostisbehere’s game-winner just 29 seconds in.
I think the underrated part of the play was how [Cousins] chipped the puck to Jake and used his body to position the Toronto guy out, and allowed for me and Jake to have the odd-man rush,” Gostisbehere said.
So that upward trend over the last six years seems to be continuing. But while it’s very easy to judge improvement on points, it’s far from the only consideration when evaluating a player’s game. What doesn’t show up on the scoresheet is the poise Cousins has shown that has him earning the team’s trust, and a lot of it comes from the fact that he was playing well in his own end from the very beginning before any points came along.
“Whenever the puck is on his tape, he’s one of those players where usually something positive happens,” Hakstol said. “A big part of the game is once you’ve defended a play and you come up with the puck, what do you do with it? What’s the next play? I think Nick’s got a good sense of the game around him and he’s done a good job for us on our half of the red line in making good things happen. We’re starting to see a little bit more of the offensive side. I think after he got his first one a few nights ago, maybe that loosened him up a little bit.”
In addition to the adjustment as far as the speed of the game and the skill of the players – both teammates and opposition – a player like Cousins also usually has to adjust his mindset as far as what his job is on the ice. Unlike a defenseman call-up, where it’s usually just continuing to play solid defense, Cousins is used in a much different situation in the NHL than he is in the AHL.
“Obviously down there I’m playing a lot of minutes, playing on the power play, stuff like that,” he said. “Points are going to come. When I’m up here, I’m just trying to find a role. We have guys up here that can play the power play like I do down there – Giroux, Voracek… that’s their job. When I come up here, it’s not my job to do that anymore. I’ve got a different role. So I just try to play that role the best I can.”
Whatever his role, Cousins hopes he can make it difficult on the Flyers to send him back to the Phantoms when Couturier returns. Regardless of what happens when that time comes, Cousins seems to have earned himself a long look as part of the Flyers’ bright future of young talent.
“Those are decisions that will be made at that time,” Hakstol said. “Nick’s done a good job. He’s been a valuable part to our team each and every night, both in a couple of tough losses as well as contributing in the games that we’ve won. Whenever Coots does come back, we’ll judge our roster and the situation that we’re in at that time health-wise and everything else.”