Top prospect Sean Couturier came into the 2010-11 season looking to build on a fantastic sophomore campaign in Drummondville. The Votigeurs' superstar produced 41 goals and 96 points in 2009-10, leading his QMJHL club in scoring as a 17-year-old.
While expectations were high, Couturier responded with another excellent season, matching his 96-point output in 10 fewer games. Most importantly for the 18-year-old, Drummondville's success continued with 45 wins and a second-place ranking in the Q's West Division.
"Overall, it was a good season for us," Couturier said. "It was another season with over 45 wins, so we were pretty happy and proud of that. Unfortunately, it wasn't the ending we all wanted."
The quest began as most had expected. The Chicoutimi Sagueneens were handled easily in a four-game sweep in the opening round, setting the stage for a lengthy spring run in late March.
In the next round, Drummondville was bounced in six games to the lower-seeded Gatineau Olympiques, providing a blunt conclusion to a promising post-season journey. For a team that lost only 15 times in regulation during the 68-game regular season, this was certainly a tough pill to swallow.
Couturier learned to take the positives. That was easy enough to do, considering his wonderful season earned him the QMJHL's Most Valuable Player honours with his second consecutive 96-point season.
"Personally, the season went pretty well. I had a slow start, and coming back from mono was pretty tough. As the season wore on, though, I kept improving and was able to progress pretty well as a player."
Aiding his progression was a mid-season opportunity that many Canadian kids grow up dreaming about. The annual World Junior Hockey Championships provided a new challenge, pitting hundreds of the world's best 20-and-under players against each other in a battle for international supremacy.
"It was an awesome experience with a bad ending (Canada lost to Russia in the gold-medal game)," Couturier recalled. "Almost every Canadian kid grows up dreaming about this tournament, so I'm thrilled that I was given the opportunity to play."
Considering Couturier was the youngest and only player yet to be drafted on Canada's deeply talented roster, his three points collected in seven tournament matches was an impressive mark in his introductory don in the nation's red and white colours.
"We came up short, but the experience was unforgettable. I think I was able to grow a lot as a player over those few weeks. I'm proud of what I was able to do."
As he should be. The 6'4", 197-pound pivot has developed nicely with experience and new opportunity coming his way. All things considered, experience that has prepared him well for his upcoming evolution to the pro ranks.
"I'm a big, two-way centre. I like to create plays offensively and control the puck, but I also take a lot of pride in my defensive game as well," Couturier explained.
That most certainly showed. While plus-minus totals need to be taken with a strong consideration of team performance, Couturier's numbers were simply outstanding. Combined over the past two seasons, he accumulated an incredible +117 rating.
Even with such a well-rounded game, the Bathurst, New Brunswick native is driven to perform at a high level. When asked about what his pre-season targets were, Couturier was keenly focused on what needs to improve.
"My explosiveness and my skating," he said. "Physically, I want to get better everywhere; stronger, faster. That's necessary for me to play and be successful at the next level."
Working toward the NHL has been Couturier's goal for quite some time. Although he was once ranked No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's prospect rankings, Couturier had an unusual season on the ordering chart. His midterm ranking was slotted in the No. 2 position, but by year's end he had fallen to No. 6.
"The thing about Sean was, he was on our radar for such a long time and so highly rated coming into the season, he had no room to really go up," NHL Central Scouting's David Gregory explained. "You look at the guys that ended up passing him -- these are unbelievable players that had great years. That doesn't mean that Sean is not the player we thought he was. The players who passed him were better than we expected coming into the season.
"[Couturier is] a big player who has tremendous puck sense, and he really makes things happen out there because of his talent and vision on the ice. He's a great player."
Couturier, as you would expect, agrees with Gregory's assessment.
"I'm a solid player on the puck, I'm hard on the puck, and can control the puck pretty well with my body. I don't really go for the big hits, but I think I use my body pretty well and that's a good factor for a big guy like me."
That equation has worked well for several big-time NHLers. Although Couturier attempts to learn as much as possible from the game's greatest stars, two in particular have stood out as he aims to carve a style similar to theirs.
"I like Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal," Couturier said. "I watch them all the time and try to take what they do in their game and apply it to mine. I absolutely try to learn from them, so I'd say they're my NHL role models."
Both Malkin and Staal are superstar middlemen that were selected second overall in 2004 and 2006 respectively. Their styles are similar to Couturier's budding path and the possibility of being chosen high could present another sparking resemblance.
Either way, there's little doubt that the scoring pivot will be contending for an NHL position this September. Where? At the moment, that's not of Couturier's concern.
"Wherever I go, I've got to prove myself in training camp. I'll try to put everything out there and do my best, showing that I can play in the NHL next year. It's a whole new league and I'm ready for the assignment."
Before September's camp rolls around, his pro destination needs to be determined. That will happen in only a month's time in St. Paul. While excited, Couturier is understandably on edge.
"I'm pretty nervous and anxious," he said. "I can't wait to get to Minnesota and hear my named called. I'm excited and I'll treasure the moment forever."
When his name is called on the evening of June 24, Sean's special moment will be shared with his father, Sylvain, who dabbled in various leagues (including in the NHL), serving as great inspiration for his son throughout his distinguished young career.
"Since I was young, I've always been around him and he played pro hockey, so just being around him and growing up in the hockey culture was fun. It was good for me and I learned a lot from that. I'm looking forward to sharing the moment with him."
Author: Ryan Dittrick | edmontonoilers.com