By Sheng Peng
Maybe Sean Couturier was born with it?
“I saw clips of him when he was probably 13 or 14, he was featured on some news channel,” Brian Elliott recalled. “You could see it then, he was just in the right spot, picking up pucks in front of the net. He just continues to do that.”
Maybe Couturier got it from his father, former NHL player Sylvain Couturier?
“He’s a guy who’s grown up around the game,” Elliott said. “Watched a lot of hockey since he was a little kid, watching his Dad and stuff. He’s learned the game from a young age.”
Wherever Couturier got his uncanny hockey sense, his Philadelphia Flyers teammates are glad it’s on their side.
“Everybody knows he’s not the fastest skater, but he’s always in the right spot,” noted Jakub Voracek.
“Where does it come from? I don’t know,” Elliott mused. “A lot of guys would like to know that answer.”
It’s this hockey IQ, more than anything, that’s earned Couturier a place among the most reliable defensive centers in the league.
Oftentimes, you can witness this sixth sense in action when he intercepts a pass. According to data from Sportlogiq, Couturier ranks 14th among all NHL forwards with 4.2 Blocked Passes Per Game, between J.T. Miller and Evgeni Malkin.
Johnny Gaudreau (13) tries to pull Couturier (14) toward the middle of the ice on November 23rd, away from his object, Sean Monahan (23) coming from behind in the left lane. But Couturier knows better.
Couturier is a step ahead of the Lightning on January 11th, anticipating the Steven Stamkos (91) pass to Brayden Point (21), then the Nikita Kucherov (86) pass up the middle.
Notice Couturier, eyes locked on Stamkos, luring Stamkos into an ill-fated connection – Couturier’s positioning, right on top of Point, is also masterful.
“So many guys around the league, can skate, can play the game, but if you’re not at the right spot, right moment, the puck isn’t going to follow you,” Voracek offered. “It feels like the puck is following him all the time.”
So what happens when you put this gift for being in the right place at the right time together with Couturier’s gangly 6-foot-3 frame? It’s a devastating combination that makes Couturier almost impossible to beat for the puck.
Couturier is 11th among all NHL forwards with 19.2 Loose Puck Recoveries Per Game, between Leon Draisaitl and Evgeni Malkin. And he’s fourth in the league at winning puck battles, averaging 5.1 per-game, between Aleksander Barkov and Patrice Bergeron.
Couturier jumps in front of Oscar Klefbom (77) to take the loose puck on October 16th, finding Claude Giroux (28) walking down the slot. Giroux’s bid is blocked; the loose puck ricochets toward Couturier and Kris Russell (4).
Even though Russell has inside position on Couturier, the centerman locks sticks with the defenseman, emerging victorious. It’s a mugging, plain and simple, and Couturier tosses the puck to Giroux in the slot once again.
“He’s got a long reach. He’s a strong guy – he doesn’t look strong off the ice. But he’s got strong arms,” Voracek said. “He’s like a spider. He’s tall, he can reach everywhere.”
Naturally, Couturier’s skills extend to every on-ice situation. From 2017-18 to now, he’s eighth among all NHL forwards in overall Short-handed Time on Ice (441:55).
The Coyotes power play got an eyeful of Couturier on January 4th. On the half-wall, Nick Schmaltz (8) wants to get the puck to either Conor Garland (83) in the high slot or Alex Goligoski (33) at the point.
Couturier watches Garland, while Schmaltz is hurried by the Flyers’ aggressive penalty killers. For his part, Couturier keeps his stick like a spring, not releasing until Schmaltz commits to Garland. Then, Couturier rips the puck away with apparent ease.
“He’s a big leader on the penalty kill. Just baiting guys into making certain plays and then taking it away,” Elliott remarked. “He does that when it’s 5-on-5, 4-on-5, you even see him make big plays on 3-on-5’s.”
Justin Braun wasn’t too familiar with Couturier, having played in the Western Conference for nine years before being traded to Philadelphia last June. But he’s come away impressed after five months of practicing against Couturier: “I didn’t realize how strong Coots is on the puck. You can’t get it off of him. He’s not that thick of a guy, but he just gets the job done.”
Another new Flyer, Kevin Hayes, who’s played in the same division as Couturier for years, echoed Braun: “I played against him for five years, it was never fun going against him. I don’t think he gets the recognition he deserves.”
That recognition, however, is coming for the 25-year-old Couturier – he was a Selke Trophy finalist in 2017-18 and the Selke frontrunner in this year’s PHWA Midseason Awards poll.
“There’s not a lot of guys like him in the league. A lot of top centers think offense before defense. He’s not like that,” Hayes said. “It’s not often you find your number-one offensive center and the number-one defensive center in the same guy.”
That’s Jonathan Toews, Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, Ryan O’Reilly…
And now, that’s Sean Couturier.
(Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)