Sean Couturier marched into an office in the Flyers’ Voorhees headquarters during the summer of 2017, closed the door behind him, and made a simple and firm request to then-head coach Dave Hasktol and the other coaches in the room. Couturier was just 24 at the time, but he had spent five seasons with the Flyers already, doing the dirty work of centering their third line and trying to shut down an opponent’s best offensive player each night. In his mind, he had earned the right to demand more offensive responsibility, a greater role. Put simply, he wanted to show the Flyers that he was more than what he had been.
“I felt I was kind of restricted in that role and never really got a fair chance to play with some top-end players,” Couturier was saying Tuesday after a weight-training session at Skate Zone, three days before the Flyers begin training camp.
“Nothing against bottom-six guys, but instead of getting one or two scoring chances a night, you know you’re getting four or five, so mentally it’s a little easier. Yeah, I told them what I thought.”
After some discussion and disagreement, Hakstol made what turned out to be perhaps the smartest and bravest decision of his tenure here. He moved Claude Giroux, the Flyers’ captain and No. 1 center, to left wing and elevated Couturier to the team’s top line. Couturier, who had never scored more than 15 goals, had 31 during the 2017-18 regular season, then five more in a six-game playoff series against the Penguins, then another 33 last season.
It’s convenient to suggest that he could have delivered that measure of production earlier in his career if only Peter Laviolette and Craig Berube had afforded him the opportunity, but not even Couturier himself buys into that revisionist history. For one thing, in the years since, the Flyers have not had a deeper team than the 2011-12 club on which Couturier debuted: Giroux, Jaromir Jagr, Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell, James van Riemsdyk, Wayne Simmons, Jake Voracek. For another, Couturier was just 18 then. The Flyers had drafted him four months before that season began. He was barely a man.
“It’s just things you can do and can’t do,” he said. “Obviously, the speed is faster. Guys are stronger. There’s also a physical aspect of growing, maturing as a player and getting stronger. As I got older, my body got stronger.
"All that put together, knowing what the league is all about, knowing what I can do and can’t do, once I figured it out, I felt more comfortable that I could be the player I always thought I could.”
There’s a lesson in Couturier’s career, one that sounds notes of both optimism and caution for the Flyers. The optimism is born not of the moves they made this offseason, but of the moves they didn’t make in previous offseasons. For as frustrated as the team’s fans — and, to a great degree, the team’s ownership — became with the lengthy rebuild that former general manager Ron Hextall rightly believed was necessary, Couturier is evidence that Hextall’s guiding principle was correct. Young players, no matter how talented, no matter how mature, generally need time to develop, and that development won’t always be a smooth, upward-trending line, and an organization gives up on them early at its peril.
Take Couturier. In 2015, he signed a six-year, $26 million contract, and that average annual value of $4.33 million would have made him an attractive trade piece if Hextall had wanted to use him as one. Such a move would have been easily defensible. What had Couturier accomplished until then, and how much longer did everyone have to wait for the Flyers to become contenders?
Hextall was willing to wait as long as it took, and his patience set the Flyers up to have several other players make the same sort of leap that Couturier did: Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, Nolan Patrick, Oskar Lindblom, Travis Sanheim. All of them might not make that leap, but it seems far-fetched that none of them will.
“Some players, it takes a little longer than others,” Couturier said. “Sometimes, it’s the opposite, too. The opportunity is given too early, and they screw up, and they never really get another opportunity. As a player, you’ve got to be ready and try to improve, and when you get those opportunities, you’ve got to capitalize on them.”