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Rivalry Night Faceoff: Couturier vs. Toews

by Adam Kimelman

To help celebrate NBC Rivalry Night, will look at a rivalry within the rivalry of the featured game on Wednesday nights. For this week, we are trying to determine how close Philadelphia Flyers center Sean Couturier is to the two-way standard set by Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews.

Going into the 2006 NHL Draft, Jonathan Toews already was considered a plus-defensive player, earning rankings of "very good" or "excellent" in all seven categories on NHL Central Scouting's checklist.

Since being taken by the Blackhawks with the third pick, he's emerged as the Blackhawks' franchise player, captain, two-time Stanley Cup champion and the 2013 Selke Trophy winner as the League's top defensive forward.

Toews also is dependable in the offensive zone and recognized as one of the best all-round players in the NHL.

Could the Philadelphia Flyers' Sean Couturier be traveling the same path?

Like Toews, Couturier earned accolades for his defensive play, earning "excellent" rankings in the four categories Central Scouting had for defensive play prior to being selected by the Flyers with the eighth pick of 2011 NHL Draft. He also was a big scorer in junior hockey, and his recent strong play has provided a glimpse of those days.

Toews is the benchmark for all-zone excellence; how far is Couturier from joining him? Let's look at the gap and decide:

Daniel Alfredsson


J. Toews
2013-14 stats
G-A-P: 12-16-28
PIM: 14
+/-: 8

S. Couturier
2013-14 stats
G-A-P: 5-10-15
PIM: 27
+/-: 6


Vincent Lecavalier

In two seasons at the University of North Dakota, Toews gave everyone a glimpse into his all-round ability. He had 22 goals and 39 points in 42 games as a freshman, and after he was drafted by the Blackhawks in 2006 he had 46 points in 34 games and earned a spot with Canada at the 2007 IIHF World Championship.

He made the transition to the NHL look easy when he had 24 goals, 54 points and a plus-11 rating in 64 games as a rookie in 2007-08.

"You understood in watching the games and evaluating the player, you knew that he was going to be a special player because of how he played and how he competed," Eddie Olczyk, who will broadcast the game Wednesday on NBC Sports Network and who works on Blackhawks television broadcasts, told

Last season, Toews was one of four players to lead his team in goals (23) and plus/minus rating (plus-28), but he was the only one to break 20 in each category. He tied for the League lead with 56 takeaways, led all players in road plus/minus at plus-21, and was second in faceoff winning percentage at .599. He won the Frank Selke Trophy as the League's best defensive forward.

In seven NHL seasons, Toews has been a consistent star player. He's a two-time 30-goal scorer and has scored at least 20 in his first six seasons. He scored at least 54 points in his first five seasons and three times went over 60. And he's had a plus-11 rating or better in his first six seasons.

Toews has 12 goals and 27 points in 32 games, putting him on pace for another 30-goal season, and for 69 points, which would be a career-high.

He has a plus-7 rating, 22 takeaways and is seventh in the League with a 57.4-percent success rate on faceoffs, taking the second-most in the League. He leads Blackhawks forwards with an average ice time of 20:51 per game, including 1:18 on the penalty kill.

He's skated in two NHL All-Star Games, won an Olympic gold medal, and two Stanley Cups.

"What makes him so special is he does everything extremely well," Olczyk said. "I don't think there's a part of his game that you can look at and say he's average. His play with the puck, his play without the puck, his compete level, his leadership, his goal-scoring ability, his distribution of the puck, faceoffs. He kills penalties, plays on the power play. I don't think he gets enough credit for being an all-round elite player."

Olczyk said the Toews he watched in 2006-07 is not much different than the one on the ice Wednesday.

"Seeing it very early in his career at the professional level and seeing him now, besides the maturity and the experience and the accolades, not much has changed," Olczyk said. 

Couturier was a known commodity heading into the 2011 draft. He had back-to-back 96-point seasons with the Drummondville Voltiguers of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. But as good as he was offensively, his defensive skills were considered just as strong.

"He possesses a very good work ethic and he's out there for every important faceoff," NHL Central Scouting's Chris Bordeleau said. "He's very responsible in the defensive aspect of the game, a rare quality for such a young player in junior hockey."

Couturier made the Flyers' 2011-12 opening-night roster and became the second-youngest player in the League to stick in the NHL all season (he turned 19 in December 2011). He spent most of his time on the third and fourth lines, but in 77 games had 13 goals, 27 points and a plus-18 rating averaging 14:08 of ice time per game. He averaged 2:41 on the penalty kill, second among Flyers forwards.

In the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Couturier was lauded for his role as a defensive stopper against 2012 scoring champion Evgeni Malkin, holding him to three goals and eight points in six games. At the other end, Couturier had a hat trick in Game 2, making him the youngest player in League history since Ted Kennedy in 1945 to have three goals in a postseason game.

Former Flyers coach Peter Laviolette promised Couturier more ice time in his second season, but he did little with the extra minutes. He slumped badly in 2012-13, at one point going 27 games between goals. He finished with four goals, 15 points and a minus-8 rating in 46 games.

When the 2013-14 season started it was more of the same; he went 19 games before scoring a goal. Lately, though, things have changed in a very positive way. In 10 games entering Wednesday, he has five goals, five assists and a plus-8 rating playing more than 19 minutes per game. His line, with Matt Read and Steve Downie, has been the Flyers' best in all facets of the game since it was formed Nov. 12, and they are 8-4-1 in that span.

"I think he had a good first year, and in the playoffs that's where everybody really realized the potential that he has with how he did play in that series against the Penguins and go head to head in that matchup [against Malkin]," Olczyk said. "Last year, not a great year. This year got off to a real rough start but now seems to be playing better."

For Olczyk, the next step is for Couturier to show he can perform for a full season.

"He has everything," Olczyk said. "He has the size; he looks like he has the intangibles to be that big two-way centerman. The offensive side of the game I'd still like to see more consistency night in and night out. Is there enough around him to help him come around like that? You have to play and you have to give a guy like that ice time, and it certainly seems like he's getting that opportunity." 

The verdict: With an enviable trophy case, and a frontrunner to add more hardware with Canada's 2014 Olympic team, there's no question Toews ranks as one of the elite players in the NHL. And the gap between Toews and Couturier is a big one.

"I think that if [Couturier] can get to within an arm's reach of Jonathan Toews, I think Sean Couturier has a pretty healthy career in the NHL," Olczyk said.

However, the seeds are there for Couturier to at least emulate for the Flyers what Toews does for the Blackhawks.

"I still think it's a work in progress," Olczyk said. "I still think the body of work, it's not enough to make an assessment that he's going to be a certain type of player. Looking at him and watching him, it's there, now it's just finding that consistency. This is what they expect and they need that consistency. If he's not scoring, is he able to do those other things that elite two-way centermen can do? It looks like everything is all there, now it's just a matter of having it happen more consistently. That's the difference between the good players and the great players, that consistency aspect, night in and night out."


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