Claude Giroux is the undisputed best and most important player on the Philadelphia Flyers. While no player emerged behind Giroux during the past couple of years, Sean Couturier is now becoming the second-most important Flyer after the captain.
People who only look at box scores and read game recaps will be particularly shocked by this claim, but anyone who actually watches and analyzes the game should understand better.
Couturier has really looked impressive this season in every facet of the game, and although his role isn't high-profile, he is absolutely vital to the Flyers' success.
He was drafted three years ago and came into the league as an elite prospect with an NHL-ready frame. When the Flyers decided to keep him on the pro roster as an 18-year-old rookie, everyone got a little crazy with their expectations.
Prior to his arrival in the NHL, fans were also not necessarily privy to the kind of game that Couturier plays. They were expecting a fast, offensive, goal scoring machine who would come in and light up the scoreboard.
Instead, they realized that he isn't particularly quick, doesn't have great stick skills and wasn't creating much offensively.
Then, in the first round of the 2011-12 playoffs, Couturier absolutely shut down league MVP Evgeni Malkin and added in a hat trick in Game 2 to help lead the underdog Flyers to a series victory.
After that, expectations rocketed back up and Couturier came out a little slow after the strange, elongated offseason and lockout-shortened 2013 season.
In his third season in the NHL, however, Couturier, who turned 21 in December, has been not just the Flyers' best two-way forward, but one of the best in the entire league.
While we were not paying enough attention to him before—except during the Pens-Flyers series in 2012—Couturier has really shined in some of the more subtle aspects of the game.
He's an extremely smart, heady player who is constantly in the right position. He's got great balance and uses his reach very effectively. He's also willing to engage in the physical aspects of the game not just to make a big hit, but to knock his guy off the puck or battle in the corners.
Couturier isn't a speedster or dangler, but he's extremely effective in getting the puck up the ice and getting the Flyers out of their own zone.
Even though he isn't known for his offense at this point, he's still seventh on the team in points and on pace for almost 40 points this year.
While he isn't lighting up the normal stat sheet, his advanced metrics are extremely promising. He takes the third-fewest faceoffs in the offensive zone on the entire team (44.9 percent) and plays against the seventh-best competition (0.063 quality of competition rating).
Despite that lethal combination, Couturier still has a very respectable relative Corsi rating (measures the Flyers' shot attempt differential when Couturier's on the ice in comparison to when he isn't) of minus-2.3.
For comparison's sake, Brayden Schenn takes 54.1 percent of his faceoffs in the offensive zone, has a quality of competition rating of minus-0.029, but a relative Corsi rating of minus-6.1. Vincent Lecavalier takes 57.9 percent of his faceoffs in the offensive zone, has a quality of competition rating of minus-0.032 and still has a relative Corsi rating of minus-10.9.
And for you visual learners out there, this graph over at Some Kind of Ninja puts all of these numbers into one convenient chart so you can really see how each player compares.
While guys like Giroux, Michael Raffl, Scott Hartnell and Jakub Voracek all have high relative Corsi ratings and play against pretty decent competition, they also all take roughly 60 percent of their faceoffs in the offensive zone, which makes it much easier for them to get offensive pressure and reduces the amount of defense they have to play.
On top of all this, Couturier has also emerged as the best penalty-killer in the entire NHL. On a team that takes as many penalties as the Flyers, that's a big deal.
Check out this article over at theScore, which breaks down exactly what makes Couturier so effective. He's truly a special talent defensively that will provide a big boost for years to come.
The Flyers have gone through a number of "second-fiddle" talents in recent years. The Mike Richards-Jeff Carter dynamic was always interesting. Kimmo Timonen has been the steady second man for years. Jakub Voracek seemed to emerge as that guy last season.
This year, it's Couturier. With his noticeable development recently, there's no reason to think he won't continue to get better and better.
For those who want to peg Steve Mason as the Flyers' second-most important player, my only qualm with that is the difficulty in comparing the importance of goaltenders to that of skaters. It's like comparing quarterbacks to position players in football—it's just too difficult and actually relatively unimportant.
Instead of harping on Philadelphia's goaltenders, let's all take a moment to appreciate the talent Couturier has and the rare skill set he brings to the ice every night.
He's the Flyers' second-most important player right now, and considering that he is still only 21 years old, that will hopefully not change for a long time.
Advanced stats courtesy of Behind the Net.