Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Flyers' Sean Couturier, others look for an ice time in upstate New York during lockout

Winding through a rotary and down a hill, just past a thin strip of bars and restaurants, it would be easy to pass by the Glens Falls Civic Center without blinking.

Winding through a rotary and down a hill, just past a thin strip of bars and restaurants, it would be easy to pass by the Glens Falls Civic Center without blinking.

The nondescript, brick building is nestled in this tiny New York hamlet at the foot of the Adirondack mountains, located just north of Albany and Saratoga Springs. It looks more like a high-school gymnasium than temporary home to some of the Flyers' brightest budding stars this winter during the NHL lockout.

Sean Couturier doesn't mind. Glens Falls reminds him of home. In fact, he lived here briefly the year he was born, when his father, Sylvain, enjoyed a 29-game run with the Adirondack Red Wings.

It's just a tougher sell to get fans to see him play in upstate New York than in upper New Brunswick, where Couturier grew up. The Adirondack Phantoms are the Flyers' top minor-league affiliate. On Wednesday night, the Phantoms played in front of an announced crowd of 2,487 - but the actual attendance was probably half that.

For one, the Phantoms themselves are a temporary stop in Glens Falls, the second incarnation of American Hockey League action in town. Team owners Rob and Jim Brooks broke ground on a new arena in Allentown on Thursday, where the team will move in time for the 2014-15 season.

It's one thing to invest - financially and emotionally - in a great local team, even if you know they'll eventually rip your heart out by packing up. But without a single Calder Cup playoff appearance since leaving Philadelphia in 2009 - and a 100-115-21 record and four head coaches - the on-ice product hasn't been worth the risk.

Couturier, 19, is one player trying to change the culture in Adirondack, even though his own stay might be temporary.

"I think at the start of this lockout, I wasn't sure how things would last," Couturier said. "I was obviously thinking about it. Lately, I've forgotten about it. I realize that I am here, I can't change it. I feel like I'm just lucky to be playing hockey."

Phantoms coach Terry Murray, the former Flyers head coach who has logged 1,012 NHL games behind the bench, said that a change in attitude and willingness to look past the lockout has turned their season around. Adirondack (9-9-0) has reached the quarter pole in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, but won three out of their last four heading into this weekend's set at home.

"The top players are coming to grips with the fact that there's a lockout going on, without choice," Murray said. "Now, if this thing gets extended, which would be great for us but unfortunate for them, they need to realize that this is a great opportunity for them to be playing big minutes. They have a chance to do something special and win."

The Philadelphia Phantoms won the Calder Cup for a second time during the yearlong 2004-05 lockout in what was widely regarded as the most competitive AHL season ever. Future stars Mike Richards and Jeff Carter got their first taste of professional hockey during that playoff run. Patrick Sharp, R.J. Umberger and Dennis Seidenberg used the locked out season to launch their careers.

"Things are starting to come together," Phantoms captain Ben Holmstrom said, one of five original Adirondackers still with the team. "There's always an adjustment period, but guys are starting to grasp the concept. Obviously, everybody is interested in what's going on with the lockout.

"But I think some guys are realizing if we're going to be here, we might as well win."

Heading into Friday night, the Phantoms were 6-3 when Couturier has recorded a point. His three-game goal-scoring streak coincided with the Phantoms' three-game winning streak.

For a player who made his living last year in the NHL as an 18-year-old in the trenches - killing penalties and winning defensive battles on the fourth line - those numbers are important. Couturier is second on the team, behind Brayden Schenn, with 15 points. He had five goals in the first nine games of November, compared to just one in the first month of the season.

Before heading to Adirondack in October, Couturier said he wanted to hone the offensive side of his game.

"It's going pretty well," Couturier said. "I'm getting [scoring] chances pretty much every game, which is something I couldn't say in the NHL. I'm looking to produce even more the rest of the season."

Couturier will get plenty of chances to do so. Murray has him quarterbacking the first-unit power play at the point. He's also killing penalties on the second unit - which Murray said is designed to maximize his even-strength ice time - and shouldering the load late in games.

Couturier averaged just 26 seconds of power-play time per game last season with the Flyers, fewer than every forward except Zac Rinaldo and Max Talbot.

"All I know is that I've been handed a pretty damn complete player," Murray said. "He's literally a complete, total package. Size, strength, speed, power. He's going to continue to grow physically and get stronger as he gets older. He has wonderful skills. I love the way he transports the puck. He's one of the few players I can say I'd like the puck to be on his stick for up to 10 seconds at a time."

Murray said he has been ragging Couturier to shoot the puck more, even though he's second on the team in shots (47 in 18 games). In fact, Murray put in place a power-play drill this week and purposely kept the middle shooting lane open to force shots from Couturier.

Unknowingly, Couturier still tried to coerce the puck to his teammates on the wings, according to Murray.

"I think some of it is reluctance," Murray guessed. "He definitely has a playmaker's instinct first. Even if there is a lane, he is looking for that one extra pass to get his teammates a better look. He has a great shot. The magic to scoring in the NHL is shooting the puck."

Murray said Couturier's skills remain just as polished defensively. He makes reads and adjustments effortlessly.

Sometimes, talking to Couturier, it's easy to forget he's still just 19 (he turns 20 next week). The No. 8 overall pick in 2011, Couturier is barely ineligible for the World Junior Championships (under-20) around the holidays in Russia. He did win a silver medal for Canada in 2011.

If Glens Falls feels a bit like home off the ice, his responsibilities on the ice remind him of junior hockey. He was an all-around All-Star for Drummondville (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League), collecting 96 points in back-to-back seasons. The AHL does not keep track of ice time as a statistic, but Couturier is probably north of 20 minutes per night. He averaged 14:08 in 77 regular-season games under Peter Laviolette last year with the Flyers.

"Last year, I was in a limited role, a different role than what I was used to," Couturier said. "I'm playing a lot more. Different minutes, different situations, too. That's helpful during the lockout. You can work out in the gym, but it's not the same as playing. This is still pro hockey. Whenever this works out, I'll be ready to jump right in."

Until then, even if it's next fall should the NHL waste another season, Couturier will try to sell a sleepy Glens Falls on hockey.

"I don't know how things will end up with the lockout. I really don't," Couturier said. "Lately, I've forgotten about it. I think that's why things have been going better."

" @DNFlyers