Sean Couturier's development as a two-way center will be the biggest factor in whether or not the Philadelphia Flyers return to the playoffs in 2014.
The 20-year-old forward followed a stellar rookie campaign with a disappointing sophomore season in 2013, where he took a step back in several aspects of his game.
If Couturier is able to take his talents to another level at both ends of the ice this year, it's extremely difficult to envision the Flyers watching the postseason from home for a second straight spring.
As we saw in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, Couturier has the talent needed to become an elite defensive forward. If the Flyers are going to make the playoffs from a division that features superstar centers such as Sidney Crosby, Derek Stepan, John Tavares and Evgeni Malkin, Couturier must excel in this role.
Without an elite defenseman on the blue line, the Flyers rely on their forwards to play a large role in shutting down the opposing team's top scorers. This requires consistent back checking, responsible positioning, playing a physical game and winning faceoffs.
As the only Flyers forward with at least 25 takeaways, 25 or more blocked shots and 30-plus hits, Couturier brings most of those qualities to the ice each shift. Where he needs to significantly improve is in the faceoff dot.
To be considered as one of the best two-way centers, Couturier must win at least 50 percent of his faceoffs. He won only 43.5 percent of his draws last year, which contributed to the Flyers ranking 23rd in faceoff percentage.
Philadelphia won't have enough puck possession to win games if Claude Giroux is the only above-average faceoff man. Only three of the 16 playoff teams last season ranked 20th or worse in FO%.
From an offensive standpoint, Couturier's performance as a third-line center makes a substantial impact on the team's scoring depth. His drop in scoring production last year was one reason why Philly went from third in goals scored during 2011-12 to ninth last season.
The Flyers have as much top-six talent as any other team, but where they don't match up well against elite competition is the bottom two lines. If Couturier is able to find his own offense consistently and create scoring chances for talented wingers such as Matt Read and Wayne Simmonds, the Flyers will score enough goals to overcome some of their shortcomings defensively next season.
Couturier was a phenomenal scorer in junior hockey with back-to-back 96-point seasons for the Drummondville Voltigeurs (QMJHL) from 2009-10 through 2010-11. The skills are there, he just needs to focus better and be more aggressive in the attacking zone.
If head coach Peter Laviolette gives Couturier more offensive responsibilities, he should receive the ice time needed to set career highs in several statistics. A fair expectation is 20 goals and 25 assists.
The ceiling for Couturier is to play like Carolina's Jordan Staal, a two-way star who dominates defensively and tallies 45-65 points per season. Just like Couturier, Staal followed a great rookie year with a poor sophomore season. But he bounced back in Year 3 and posted a then-career high of 49 points as the third-line center for the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Now it's up to Couturier to go this same route and take the next step as a two-way center in his third NHL season.
If he's successful, the Flyers will be a much better defensive team and receive the bottom-six scoring required to reach the playoffs from an ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL columnist at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, the 2012 NHL playoffs and the 2013 NHL draft.
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