Nearly 10 years before Flyers center Sean Couturier signed an eight-year, $62 million contract extension fit for a Selke Trophy winner, he crawled under the skin of Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin in the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs as a rookie fourth-liner.
In order to crack a deep Flyers forward group, 19-year-old Couturier embraced a defensive role on shutdown lines alongside players such as Max Talbot, Zac Rinaldo, and Eric Wellwood. He excelled in carrying out these defensive responsibilities, something that often proves difficult for younger players. In the Flyers’ six-game series win over the Penguins, Couturier limited (and sometimes frustrated) Malkin, the 2011-12 Hart Trophy winner, to three goals and five assists.
“That definitely made a name for myself as a solid defensive player,” Couturier said. “But then it kind of stayed with me a little bit over the years.”
As the makeup of the Flyers’ personnel evolved, so did Couturier — the 2011 eighth overall pick blossomed into an offensive threat, topping 30 goals and 70 points in both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. However, his defensive instincts remained the hallmark of his play. In 10 seasons, only twice has he finished a season with a negative plus-minus. One of those seasons was last year (minus-4), when the Flyers had just three regulars who finished as plus-players and goaltender Carter Hart posted a .877 save percentage.
Now, with a new contract in hand that will make him the team’s highest-paid player ($7.75 million average per year) starting in 2022-23, Couturier said he doesn’t feel pressured to alter the balanced, two-way game that earned him the deal in the first place.
“For me, it’s always going to be play the same way,” Couturier said. “Play a solid, 200-foot game and be reliable in all the aspects of the game. With the salary I’m making and the raise that I got, there’s going to be some higher expectations or [whatever]. But for me, it’s really gonna be about just trying to be the same player and help my teammates as much as I can to be the best we can and just win.”
Over the past several seasons, consistency has characterized Couturier’s play. He has averaged at least one goal and one-and-a-half assists per 60 minutes since 2017-18, according to Hockey-Reference.
The Flyers recognized his value, too, long before general manager Chuck Fletcher offered Couturier an extension this summer. Couturier received the team’s Bobby Clarke Trophy, given to its most valuable player, for the third consecutive time last season. He became the first Flyer to win the award in three straight seasons since former captain Eric Lindros (1993-96).
“The reason the Flyers committed to Sean the way they did [is] because he’s one of the best players at his position,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “You’re talking about a guy that plays a full 200-foot game, can obviously defend when it’s time to defend, and can contribute offensively when that opportunity is there.
“Very strong leader. Wanted to be a Flyer. The Flyers showed him the same that he’s shown the Flyers.”
Couturier could have played out the final year of his contract before testing the open market in free agency, but he said he wanted to be a part of Fletcher’s vision for the future. On the front office’s side, Fletcher didn’t hesitate to make a long-term commitment to his top center. At the end of last season, Couturier said Fletcher approached him and his agent, Erik Lupien, to express his interest in getting a deal done.
Over the course of the summer, Fletcher cleared cap space by trading winger Jakub Voracek (three years left at an annual average of $8.25 million) to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for winger Cam Atkinson (four years left at an annual average of $5.875 million). He also shipped off defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere ($4.5 million per year), a 2022 second-round pick, and a 2022 seventh-round pick to the Arizona Coyotes for nothing but cap relief. The Flyers announced their agreement with Couturier on Aug. 26.
“As you can see, I think Chuck had a pretty busy offseason with all the changes and additions,” Couturier said. “So maybe it took a little longer than it could have, but I totally understand. Everything was pretty easy. It was simple and just happy it’s done.”
The flurry of offseason moves, from extending winger Joel Farabee and goalie Carter Hart to adding veterans such as Atkinson, Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Keith Yandle, excited Couturier. Add in center Kevin Hayes, who is signed with the Flyers through 2025-26, and Couturier said he likes the way the future is shaping up for the squad.
The biggest question mark regarding the Flyers’ core heading into next season and beyond is captain Claude Giroux, who is in the last year of his eight-year, $66.2 million deal. Whether or not Fletcher decides to bring back the longtime face of the franchise will determine how he builds the roster in the coming seasons. Regardless, Couturier is committed to remaining a Flyer for the next decade.
“It’s gonna be an exciting couple years here in the future,” Couturier said. “Just wanted to be part of it. Keep building this team up and hopefully we can get a Stanley Cup here. That was the main thing. For me, it’s been 10 years already I’m in Philly, so it’s all I know, really. The organization’s been great to me ever since I came in.
“For me to be here and my family, we like it here and my daughter was born here. So all that put together, it was a pretty easy choice, easy decision to make.”
With a new contract may come new expectations, but at age 28, Couturier said he’s fully developed into the player he aspired to become. He remains confident in maintaining the two-way standard he’s established over the past 10 seasons.
“Over the next couple years, I just want to keep improving,” Couturier said. “Keep being solid in all areas, learn some new things, and just become as much of a complete player I can be and help the team.”