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.
"I think that a lot of times there's always that expectation when players come in that first year and they're contributing a certain way, there'll be that jump to new heights in the second year, but it doesn’t always work that way," coach Peter Laviolette told NHL.com. "Sean still played good games and played well defensively. … I think generally with our team, there were too many times where we just were inconsistent with our play. Not just Sean, but we needed to be more consistent with what we were doing."
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 third-line, defensive-oriented role similar to his rookie season. However, he still will be expected to help supply offense -- certainly more than he did last season. And it's not like he's a stranger to the offensive zone, as he had back-to-back 90-point seasons in his final two seasons of junior hockey.
"I think the only way to go about it is to go in there and dig in and do some work and make sure that doesn't happen again," Laviolette said of Couturier's 2012-13 output. "He's looking for a bump in his play at both ends of the ice. I'm sure he wants to be better defensively and a contributing player in the offensive zone."
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