Looking ahead to his seventh NHL season, Philadelphia Flyers center Sean Couturier felt he was ready to be more than be a top checking center.
So at his exit meeting with coach Dave Hakstol after last season, he pointedly said it was time for him to have the chance to show he could contribute more offensively.
"I didn't go in there throwing chairs, I wasn't yelling at him," Couturier said with a laugh. "… Last year was really the first time that I maybe expressed a little frustration with the way I was put into situations to succeed. I thought to myself, 'I've waited long enough.' It was my sixth year last year and I really wanted to take a step forward and this was the only thing missing."
Video: PHI@OTT: Couturier tips home Gostisbehere's shot
Couturier has gotten what he wanted, and is producing at a higher rate than he ever has in the NHL. Centering a line with left wing Claude Giroux and right wing Jakub Voracek, Couturier leads the Flyers with nine goals and is tied with Voracek for the team lead with 18 points entering their game against the Chicago Blackhawks at Wells Fargo Center on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; TVA Sports, NBCSP, NBCSCH, NHL.TV).
After 15 games, he's more than halfway to surpassing his NHL best of 15 goals (in 2014-15), and with an average of 1.2 points per game, he could surpass his high of 39 points in 2013-14 and 2015-16 before Christmas.
He also leads the Flyers with a plus-11 rating in 20:29 of ice time per game, first among Flyers forwards.
"All these years, a lot of people just thought I was a defensive guy," Couturier said. "I always knew I could do more, be more of an offensive threat. I was patient, waited for my time, and my chance. … Finally got it this year and I've been enjoying it and trying to take advantage of it."
That patience was tested by three coaches (Peter Laviolette, Craig Berube, Hakstol) during his first six seasons. All at various times said they wanted Couturier to have more offensive opportunities, but invariably he would return to his role of playing against the other team's top line and thinking offense second. In that time he started 41.20 percent of his 5-on-5 shifts in the offensive zone, the sixth-lowest percentage among forwards to play at least 400 games between 2011-12 and 2016-17.
"I'm 24, turning 25 soon,' said Couturier, whose birthday is Dec. 7. "It's really the year where if I wanted to be known as more than just a defensive guy I had to step up and put pressure on the coaches, the organization, to put me in this situation."
Couturier said he knew there would be extra pressure by demanding more offensive chances.
"I kind of realized, 'What's the worst that can happen?'" he said. "I'll just stay in the same spot I'm in and do what I can to be in that role and help the team. But if I wanted to get a bigger opportunity I felt I needed to finally speak and I felt I've earned the right to demand a bigger role."
Hakstol said the final 20 games of 2016-17, when Couturier led the Flyers with 17 points (five goals, 12 assists), showed him Couturier was ready for an expanded offensive role.
This season he's started 46.01 percent of his 5-on-5 shifts in the offensive zone, up from 44.05 last season and better than his previous NHL best of 44.63 in 2015-16.
"He showed a little different level offensively the last month of the season last year," Hakstol said. "I think he's carried that right into the beginning of this year and he's showing no signs of dropping off from that level of performance."
Knowing he's being used in high-leverage offensive situations has allowed Couturier to take a relaxed approach.
"Mentally it's a lot easier," he said. "You know you're going into a game going to get four or five chances a night. Before I'm playing mostly defensive minutes, trying to play against top lines, you're going to get one or two chances even if you control the play. You get a quality chance, you get maybe one or two a game and you feel you have to bury them to be successful. It's a little more loose out there knowing you're going to get a lot of chances. You miss one … you know you'll get another one next period or next shift. It's a little looser out there."
When Couturier was put with Giroux and Voracek during training camp, there were questions about how the line would work. While Couturier had played with Voracek extensively in the past, he almost never played with Giroux. They had had 5:15 of 5-on-5 ice time together last season, according to NatualStatTrick.com, and a combined 89:51 in their first six seasons as teammates.
Video: ANA@PHI: Couturier dekes past Gibson to open scoring
The result, however, has been success for all three players. Giroux, playing left wing for the first time in the NHL, is third on the Flyers with 17 points (eight goals, nine assists), and Voracek is in the top 10 in the League in assists (15) and points (18).
"I think what makes us so good is we're three smart guys that like to make plays, see the ice pretty well, and so far we're doing good at creating space for each other," Couturier said. "We can suck in that extra guy, 1-on-1 we can beat guys, and then the second guy comes in and opens up an area for our linemates."
Giroux always believed Couturier had the ability to produce big numbers in the NHL.
"He's playing with confidence right now," Giroux said. "He's making plays. He's always had that scoring touch but the numbers haven't shown [it]. His instincts offensively, he's a really smart player."