After enjoying a career season last in 2017-18, expectations were high for Flyers center Sean Couturier. He was coming off a career-best 31 goals and 76 points. He was a finalist for the Selke Trophy, finishing second in the balloting. He had a stellar playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, racking up nine points and his second career playoff hat trick despite playing through a sprained MCL.
Unfortunately, this September, Couturier had an abbreviated training camp and preseason due a summertime knee injury. As a result, it took him some time to get his game back to its accustomed level on both sides of the puck.
Over the last three months, even at times when the team struggled, Couturier has worked his back to its accustomed level. In recent weeks Flyers interim head Scott Gordon has frequently split up Couturier from his highly successful line with Claude Giroux. Team Giroux has moved from left wing back to center, along with James van Riemsdyk and Travis Konecny. Couturier has been centering Oskar Lindblom and Jakub Voracek.
For his part, Couturier hasn't skipped a beat. He's continued to roll, playing some of his best hockey of the season even after after the line juggling.
"He's a horse," Flyers interim head coach Scott Gordon said. "He plays both sides of the puck, both ends of specialty teams, and against other teams' top lines. There's a lot there to like. He's a key part of our team, along with G. When we are able to have G and Coots both out there in the middle of the ice, that means roughly two-thirds of the shifts in the game we're able to get one of those two out there. That's really valuable to our team."
While he has never primarily been defined by his offensive stats, it is worth noting that Couturier has compiled 40 points (17g, 23a) over his last 39 games. He had just three goals and zero assists through the first 11 games of the season.
Couturier has never been one to make excuses, and he is generally much more expansive when talking about the team or discussing a teammate than himself, but he admitted last week that it took him a few weeks to starting feeling like his game was starting to click again.
"Yeah, it took a little longer than I would have liked. I never felt like it was too far off, though. Just little plays, details, that I had to sharpen up a little. But physically I felt pretty good. That wasn't an issue," Couturier said.
As with many players on the team, the club's late October to early November western road trip -- the start of a 5-0-1 upswing that was the team's high-water mark until the current seven-game winning streak -- was a turnaround point for Couturier. Unlike much of the team, however, Couturier's individual play never really dipped much from that point onward whereas much of the team struggled mightily from mid-November through an 0-6-2 spell in January before the current surge.
In November, Couturier had 14 points (6g-8a) in 12 games. In December, despite being one of the most tumultuous months in franchise history and Couturier missing two games (Dec. 8 and 9 in Buffalo and Winnipeg) due to a lower-body injury, the center had 10 points (4g, 6a) in 10 games. In January, he had 13 points (5g-8a) in 13 games. He was also plus-seven for the month. February started with Couturier scoring a power play goal and adding a power play assist against the Edmonton Oilers in a 5-4 overtime victory.
Gordon was talking about the entire team and not just Couturier when he said after the team's seventh straight win that consistency is what breeds confidence. However, he may as well have used the 26-year-old Couturier along with Giroux as the leaders-by-example for the rest of the team. Gordon said that the decision to move Lindblom up in the lineup was partially based on a feeling that Lindblom's own two-way game would be a solid complement to Couturier's game.
Couturier has had considerable previous experience playing with Voracek on his line, especially in the first half of last season. His recent stretch with Lindblom on his left wing is their first extended time together. Asked about what Lindblom has brought to the line chemistry, Couturier characteristically gave a more in-depth response than to queries about his own game. It boiled down to the same primary quality that stands out with Couturier himself: consistency.
"He's a really smart player," Couturier said. "He does a lot of little things, that people don't really see, that can help you win a lot of games. You know what you will get him as a linemate, and you appreciate that. He helps make it that much easier."
Couturier himself is a model linemate and teammate, who helps make those around him better. Even going back as far as the 2015-16 season, when he's been healthy, Couturier has been a productive player regardless of his linemates. Combining with Giroux last season and the majority of the first half of this season was a boon to Couturier but also to Giroux. Now, it is Lindblom (3g, 3a in the last seven games) and Voracek (10 assists in the last 8 games) who are part of an effective trio with Couturier. More important, the team as a whole has benefited.
That includes even players who play on different lines. With Giroux and Couturier playing down the middle, it took a little pressure taken off Nolan Patrick. The second-year NHLer, in turn, has recently rediscovered his own confidence and doubled his season goal total from five to 10 in a short span. Additionally, with Giroux moving from left wing back to center, it enabled James van Riemsdyk to be elevated to the top line. JVR has been on a tear the last few weeks.
There is plenty of credit to go around for the Flyers' current winning streak, starting with the goaltenders. However, don't underestimate the domino effect that the consistency of GIroux and Couturier in continuing to play well on different lines has had in helping other parts of the team's game to snapping into place as well.