Sean Couturier emerged as a legitimate two-way center last season, finally taking a big step forward after a good but uninspiring first two seasons in the NHL.
Fans were excited when he fell to Philadelphia in the eighth overall slot of the 2011 draft, and Couturier was solid as a rookie.
But then he failed to improve much in his sophomore year, which was an admittedly strange lockout-shortened season. Regardless, there were a lot of expectations for Couturier to be better in 2013-14, and he delivered.
Couturier posted a career-high 39 points, but anyone who follows the Flyers or has seen Couturier play knows that there is far more to his game than creating offense.
His advanced metrics were simply amazing last season. Looking at this graph on somekindofninja.com, it's easy to tell just how valuable Couturier was.
Out of Flyers forwards who played at least 60 games last season, Couturier played against the best competition and took only 42.6 percent of his faceoffs in the offensive zone.
This means that Couturier was trusted against opponents' best players, and he started a heck of a lot of shifts in his own zone.
His usage is reflected in his relative on-ice Corsi of minus-4.0, which shows the Flyers controlled a larger share of shot attempts when he was on the bench—not surprising given Couturier's higher quality of competition.
Elsewhere, his penalty-killing ability was just as important to his—and Philadelphia's—success in 2013-14. Couturier was absolutely dominant on the kill.
He played the fifth-most short-handed minutes of any player in the entire league, including defensemen, leading all forwards in short-handed minutes. He was also tied for seventh overall in short-handed ice time per game while producing five short-handed points.
Among forwards who saw over 90 seconds of short-handed ice time per game last season, he ranked seventh in on-ice Corsi. In other words, he did a stellar job of limiting the opposition's power-play shot attempts.
The Flyers took a ridiculous amount of minor penalties last year (second-most in the entire league), and Couturier's presence is a major reason that their lack of discipline didn't cost them too much.
The 21-year-old also played a lot of minutes overall, 19:05 per game to be exact, had a solid 165 shots on goal and finished with a plus-one rating.
Due to all of this productivity and defensive aptitude, Couturier finished ninth in the Selke Trophy voting for the league's best defensive forward.
I wrote about Couturier's importance to the team this past February, as I realized just how good of a season he was having after tracking his advanced stats over time. I'm obviously not surprised at all about his top-10 Selke finish.
But even though Couturier has proven a lot over the past year, he still has quite a way to go before he can reach the guys at the top of that Selke list.
That question of whether or not Couturier can take the next step toward greatness is going to be instrumental in Philadelphia's success over the next few seasons.
If he doesn't take that step, he'll continue being a solid third-line center and outstanding penalty-killer who can impact a game but not dominate one.
If Couturier is able to elevate himself to new heights, then the Flyers will have a true weapon behind Claude Giroux in the lineup.
That would entail getting more shots on goal, upping his point total to around 50 per year and assuming a greater leadership role while still improving as a shutdown center and penalty-killer.
His time on ice per game should peak above 20 minutes while seeing the majority of his minutes against the other team's top line.
He will never be as talented as Patrice Bergeron, and I don't expect him to dominate like Anze Kopitar or Jonathan Toews.
But if Couturier keeps improving and figures out a way to consistently excel at both ends of the ice, he may find himself mixed in with the tier below those guys sooner rather than later.
Couturier's development is arguably the biggest question facing the Flyers heading into training camp. Will he deliver?
Philadelphia better hope so. The future of the organization depends on it.
Unless otherwise noted, advanced statistics courtesy of Behind the Net.
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