Two seasons ago, Philadelphia Flyers center Sean Couturier became the fifth player in franchise history to finish as a finalist for the Frank J. Selke Trophy; the league's award for the top defensive forward. He finished second in the balloting, trailing only Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar.
This season, Couturier is a leading contender to win the award for the first time in his career. If he does so, he will become just the third player in Flyers history to capture the trophy.
Bob Clarke won the Selke Trophy in 1982-83, followed by Dave Poulin in 1986-87. No Flyer has won it since. Ron Sutter finished second in 1985-86 and Mike Richards placed second in 2008-09 before Couturier earned the top runner-up spot in 2017-18.
Joel Otto, a two-time Selke finalist as a member of the Calgary Flames (1992-93 and 1994-95), finished fifth as a member of the 1996-97 Flyers. Michal Handzus, a finalist in 1999-2000 as a member of the St. Louis Blues, finished 8th as a member of the 2003-04 Flyers. The Slovakian center split the Selke ballot with Flyers teammate Keith Primeau, who finished sixth the same year.
Later a two-time Selke winner with the Carolina Hurricanes, Rod Brind'Amour's highest Selke finish as a Flyer came in 1998-99; ninth place. Simon Gagne, an excellent two-way forward, was hurt by the fact that the Selke has historically been a center-dominated award. A left winger for most of his career, Gagne never placed higher than 12th (2005-06) during his career, although he did earn three first-place and a pair of second-place votes.
Given that history, it would be a milestone worth celebrating if Couturier wins the Selke this season. The National Hockey League has declared the 2019-20 regular season complete for statistical purposes. If and when the League is able to move to Phase 4 -- the resumption of games -- all statistics will count toward postseason numbers and consideration for Conn Smythe Trophy (most valuable player in the Stanley Cup Playoffs).
Since the Selke, like all individual awards with the exception of the Conn Smythe Trophy, takes only the regular season into account, the case for Couturier will be based on his performances from opening night in Prague through March 10. With that in mind, here are the key elements that support Couturier's candidacy for this year's Selke.
1) Heavy workload: Couturier has averaged 19:50 of ice time per game this season -- tops among Flyers forwards -- including 2:02 on the penalty kill. Couturier has been called upon to play 20 or more minutes of ice time 31 times this season. Although the Quality of Competition (QOC) stat has fallen out of favor among analytics devotees, it is nevertheless worth noting that Couturier still plays some of the "hardest" minutes across the NHL, frequently matching up head-to-head against opponents' top lines. The Flyers' addition of Kevin Hayes has alleviated some of the burden from Couturier, but Couturier is still the team's go-to "shutdown center" in addition to the team's reliance on him to provide a healthy share of offense.
2) Puck possession and faceoff dominance: One of the most dominant faceoff men in the NHL, Couturier has won draws at a stellar 59.6 percent clip (59.9% at even strength, 62.8% on the power play, and 53.5% on the penalty kill). Meanwhile, he is second among Flyers forward with an on-ice 55.55% expected goals percentage at 5-on-5 and tops the team with a 56.25% Corsi. He also has more credited takeaways (40) than charged giveaways (36). Bottom line: The Flyers demonstrably spend significantly more time with the puck than without it -- and generate more quality scoring chances of their own than they give up -- when Couturier is on the ice.
3) Offensive model of consistency: Although the Selke is officially a "defensive play" award, it has evolved over time into a "200-foot-play" honor that requires offensive performance as well as strong off-puck play. This season, Couturier has only gone as many as three consecutive games without a point once the entire campaign (Oct. 24 to 27). On the flip side, he had 14 multi-point games, two point streaks of four games (Oct. 15 to 21 and Jan. 2 to 8) and a five-game point streak (Oct. 29 to Nov. 7). Over the final 26 games before the NHL pause, Couturier posted 24 points (10g, 14a) and a +10 rating.
4) Durability: For the fourth time in his NHL career, Couturier dressed in every game of the regular season. He has only missed two games over the past three seasons combined. This is important because the sample size to show his two-way dominance this season is as large as it possibly can be. Just as important, an array of both primary and underlying statistics show that Couturier performs at an elite two-way level regardless of his linemates. In fact, his presence almost inevitably lifts the performance of whomever is on his line.