Sean Couturier was touted as the "steal of the draft" almost immediately after the Philadelphia Flyers selected him eighth overall back on June 24th.
The 18-year old's story has been well documented—Couturier was widely considered the number one prospect in North America and a candidate to be drafted first overall before a bout with mononucleosis stunted his growth, both physically and as a hockey player.
After putting up 96 points in back-to-back seasons with Drummondville in the QMJHL, Couturier slipped in the draft and ended up in Philadelphia, who days earlier acquired the eighth overall pick from the Columbus Blue Jackets (along with Jakub Voracek) for Jeff Carter.
Couturier impressed in training camp, out performing fellow rookie and supposed crown jewel of the Summer Blockbusters, Brayden Schenn, and made the team.
In his first 10 NHL games, Couturier continued to impress, logging two goals and two assists while playing major minutes for coach Peter Laviolette both on the penalty kill and as a defensive specialist late in games. Couturier proved important enough to keep around and stayed with the Flyers during the 10 game "trial period" in which a player may be optioned back to his junior squad for more seasoning.
Through the first 25 games of Couturier's career he has lived up to his billing as the steal of the draft.
While point-production has not come as quickly as many fans hoped and expected, having tallied only five goals and three assists thus far, Couturier has been valuable in many other regards.
His defensive responsibility and own-zone play suggest maturity beyond his years, a sentiment echoed by Laviolette's trust in him.
Couturier's plus-7 rating ranks him second among rookie forwards, trailing only teammate Matt Read (+9). Couturier has accumulated this rating despite playing a majority of his 12:37 of ice-time on the checking lines or short-handed.
In fact, Couturier's 3:17 average short-handed time on ice per game is the most of any rookie forward, second amongst all rookies (behind Ottawa defenseman Jared Cowen- 3:29), fourth amongst all NHL forwards and second within Philadelphia's forwards, behind only Max Talbot's league leading 4:20 per game—not bad company considering Philly is killing 83.6% of its penalties despite lead PK man Chris Pronger, who leads the Flyers with 4:45 of man-down ice-time per game, missing almost half of the season's games to this point. Not to mention the fact that Philadelphia has been short-handed 116 times, the third highest total in the league.
But Couturier's true value lies within what the Flyers gave up to get him.
Couturier turns 19 in a few days, and is locked up at under $1 million per season through 2013-14, at which point he becomes a 21-year old restricted free agent, still basically under the organization's control.
Jeff Carter, traded to Columbus for the pick used to draft Couturier, was signed to a contract extension guaranteeing a cap-hit over $5-million per season through the 2021-22 season, in which Carter will turn 37. Furthermore, following this season, a full no trade clause kicks in through 2014-15, followed by a modified NTC that expires with the contract.
Despite losing Carter, Mike Richards, Ville Leino, Kris Versteeg and Nik Zherdev, among others this past off-season, the Flyers lead the league in goals per game, netting over three-and-a-half per game.
Shedding Carter's contract and ice-time allowed the Flyers to invest in more versatile players.
Along with Couturier, the Flyers received Jakub Voracek from Columbus—a 22-year old former first round pick scheduled to make $2.25 million this season before becoming a restricted free agent.
The Flyers were able to turn one over-rated goal scorer into two younger playmakers with less restricting contracts. As Claude Giroux ascends the ranks of the NHL's elite and Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, James van Riemsdyk, Brayden Schenn and Matt Read continue to progress, the Flyers scoring will be as deep as ever and at half the cost.
Still, Sean Couturier is proving to be a vital piece to this equation. It is his versatility at both ends of the ice that make him an important cog both on and off the ice.
While Couturier may serve more purposes than a player like Carter, his lack of domination in any single statistical category will forever keep his price tag down, making it more possible for Couturier to stay with Philadelphia for a long time.
Couturier's status as the "steal" has roots in his fit with the Flyers.
A strong penalty-killing forward with play-making ability is exactly what the orange and black were looking for after trading former Selke Trophy Finalist Mike Richards to the Los Angeles Kings. And, it is exactly what they were able to find in Couturier.
As an added bonus, despite fitting in well with Laviolette's aggressive, yet responsible coaching style (some players interpret "responsible" differently), Couturier has not made the mistake of being too aggressive, having only been called for one penalty over the first 25 games of his career; a two-minute tripping minor on November 14 in Carolina.
Among his contemporaries, Couturier stacks up quite well. Of the six forwards drafted ahead of Couturier, only two were able to make their NHL squad and stay past the ten-game mark.
First overall pick and Calder Trophy favorite Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is having an excellent first year, having posted rookie leading totals of 12 goals, 17 assists and 29 points thus far for the Edmonton Oilers, currently sitting in third place in the Northwest Division.
Second overall pick Gabriel Landeskog's 13 points rank him fourth amongst rookies and his +7 rating ties him for second with Couturier among first year forwards.
New Jersey Devils' fourth overall pick defenseman Adam Larsson is the only other top-eight pick currently in the NHL.
Searches of the first rounders' names drafted after Sean Couturier produced a series of, "What are you talking about?" responses from hockey-reference.com.
As the Flyers had no chance at the first, second or fourth overall selections, Couturier was easily the most NHL ready of the remaining first round prospects, and as the emergence of Claude Giroux means the addition of an elite scorer (Nugent-Hopkins) was not necessary, Sean Couturier was the best possible selection for the Flyers.
Given his maturity and output only 25 games into his NHL career, Couturier's upside is as high as any fan's imagination.
His experiences—sharing a dressing room with the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Chris Pronger, Danny Briere, Kimmo Timonen and Max Talbot, while making a playoff run in front of the most demanding and intense fans in hockey at only 19 years old—will speed his progression and boost his confidence as the team grows with him through the first few years of his career.
What Couturier could become as he soaks up the savvy of the veterans around him, while simultaneously earning their respect with on-ice production is the next great leader of this franchise.
While Mike Richards was dubbed the "next captain" far too early for his own good, Couturier has a chance to grow as a leader before he is expected to carry the entire locker room—and early indications have shown Couturier to be far more mature than Richards at this point (or really any point) in his career.
All of this is not to say Courtuier does not have room to improve. Converting only 47% of his faceoffs into possession is too low a number for an elite center, especially one counted on to take nearly a third of his team's man-down draws (60 of 206). Also, a little more point production never hurt anybody.
However, faceoffs in the NHL are an adjustment for all young players (check out Crosby's percentages earlier in his career) and scoring will come with confidence which can only come from more opportunities—something that is hard to come by on a team stacked with top six forwards.
But Couturier fulfills his given role as well as any rookie in the league, especially those in his draft class.
Couturier's talent, instincts and work ethic set him apart from many other highly touted rookies.
Couturier clearly has the tools to progress, as these characteristics lead to greater opportunities. Sean Couturier has already shown an ability to take advantage of opportunities, whether it be making the Flyers out of camp, hanging around past his ten game limit, netting short-handed goals or simply flourishing in the high-pressure situations that rattle young players.
Sean Couturier's diverse skill set, potential and current role with the Flyers are what makes him the steal of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, and with 57 regular season games remaining I foresee Couturier cementing himself as such and making a late push for the Calder Trophy.