A year ago, many would have thought the team picking 12th overall would have no chance of nabbing Sean Couturier. Today, it at least seems possible.
If there was one player that appeared on the radar years ago as the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, it was Couturier. He certainly turned heads in 2009-10 by becoming the first rookie to lead the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in scoring since Sidney Crosby five years earlier.
However, through no real fault of his own, it could be that others have caught up to him.
“He’s been on the horizon for quite a few years, and usually what happens with those players is that they get somewhat overanalyzed,” said Jason Karmanos, vice president and assistant general manager of the Hurricanes. “It’s not necessarily because he’s done anything wrong, but I think there’s the possibility that he goes later than expected based on the strength of the top 15.”
"He’s still a very good hockey player, but we probably didn’t see the best of him this year," said Tony MacDonald, the Hurricanes' director of amateur scouting. "It’s fair to say that he’s a guy that didn’t quite live up to expectations, but there are reasons for that. Not excuses, reasons."
Among those are the emergence of Quebec-league colleague Jonathan Huberdeau, who has likely surpassed Couturier in the eyes of most scouts. There's also an early-season bout with mononucleosis and a performance at the World Junior tournament that has been described as "average," although he was the only draft-eligible player among a group of mostly 19-year-olds on Team Canada.
If those things cause Couturier, a back-to-back 96-point scorer with Drummondville, to fall in the rankings, he could end up being the steal of the draft. He has all the qualities the Hurricanes covet in their centers, including the ability to score points as well as prevent them.
“He’s an extremely smart player, which is his best attribute,” said Karmanos. “Among the forwards in the top 15, he’s probably the best defensive player.”
"He’s the prototypical two-way center," said MacDonald. "He has size, skill and plays very well without the puck."
Those qualities would seem to make him a top-10 pick, but his shortcomings this past season - real or perceived - have caused him to be mentioned in the same breath as Cam Fowler, a player that surprisingly fell to No. 12 last year but shouldn't have based on his rookie season with the Anaheim Ducks.
"I think that’s sitting in everyone’s minds," said MacDonald.
Like fellow draft hopeful Nathan Beaulieu – one of the players that overtook him in NHL Central Scouting rankings since the midterm – Couturier comes from a hockey family. His father Sylvain played 33 NHL games with Los Angeles before moving on to a front-office career that has currently has him serving as general manager of the Quebec league’s Acadie-Bathurst Titans.