On Thursday afternoon the NHL announced the three Frank J. Selke Trophy finalists. This year one of Anze Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron, or Jonathan Toews will take home the award for the best defensive forward in the NHL.
Not surprisingly, Sean Couturier was not on the list. The 21 year old center who was drafted 8th overall in 2011 has displayed excellent defensive awareness and is already being called upon to shut down opposing stars. This season Couturier began to be recognized by some for his defensive competence and received a mild amount of Selke Trophy buzz.
Couturier was drafted with the anticipation that he could be a future Selke winner. He has shown flashes of two way brilliance, but what will it take for him to be recognized with the likes of Bergeron and Toews? How does he even stack up against this years finalists?
Take a look at this chart comparing Couturier with the finalists in traditional statistical categories:
(Note: All stats on each chart are for the 2013-2014 regular season)
Obviously Couturier does not have the offensive numbers that Kopitar, Bergeron, and Toews have. Couturier’s goals, assists, and giveaway/takeaway differential are a bit behind the other nominees. However, before we write off Couturier, let’s investigate a little bit more.
Take a look at this chart comparing the same players in a few categories that add some context to Couturier’s role:
O Zone Start %
D Zone Start %
)/D Zone Start %
*QoC=Quality of Competition, QoT=Quality of Teammates
What does this chart tell us? Sean Couturier is put in a defensive scenario almost every time he is on the ice!
Let’s start with offensive/defensive zone starts. Couturier begins his shifts in the offensive zone far less than Toews and Kopitar and only moderately less than Bergeron. He starts his shifts in the defensive zone way more than Kopitar and Toews and only slightly more than Bergeron. With zone starts slanted by such a huge margin it is no wonder that Couturier only mustered 13 goals and 26 assists this season.
But that’s not all. Take a look at his QoC and QoT. Although Couturier faces the easiest competition, he also has the worst teammates. Matt Read was on the ice with Couturier for 74.3% of his shifts this season, but no other winger was with him more than 41% of the time. Steve Downie, Michael Raffl, and Zac Rinaldo each spent time on Couturier’s vacant wing.
Without two competent wingers, things will always be tough for Couturier. For a long stretch of games in December, Downie looked like the answer to this problem. Unfortunately, injuries and recklessness have caused Downie to become little more than an afterthought. The Flyers need to find Couturier a winger who is strong in all three zones and can compliment his solidified chemistry with Matt Read.
Jason Akeson has been a great addition to Couturier’s line over the last five games. Is Akeson the long term answer? Only time will tell.
Finally, take a look at shorthanded time on ice. Couturier absolutely blows away the competition. His 3:25 per game is a full minute more than Kopitar, who is second on the list. Before you counter saying, ‘Yeah, but the Flyers take more penalties than the Kings, Blackhawks, or Bruins’, take a look at this:
Sean Couturier is on the ice for 62.3% of the Flyers shorthanded time. Compare that to 33.3% for Kopitar/Kings, 30.8% for Toews/Blackhawks, 35.9% for Bergeron/Bruins. The Flyers utilize Couturier on the penalty kill almost twice as much as each of these teams utilize their Selke Trophy nominee.
So is Couturier close to a Selke Trophy nomination? Absolutely, but the Flyers will need to help him out.
The unfortunate truth is that Couturier likely will not receive a nomination until he begins to increase his offensive production. Even though the award is given to the best defensive forward in the league, it has become the award for the best two-way forward instead, and there is a difference.
Until the Flyers find a line that can ease Couturier’s slanted zone starts we can expect his offensive production to remain in the 35-45pt range. The Flyers second line of Brayden Schenn, Vincent Lecavalier, and Wayne Simmonds has equally slanted zone starts, but towards the offensive zone because they are an absolute mess when pinned in their own end.
Another factor to consider is that Couturier is not a mainstay on either Flyers power play unit. There is no doubt that he has great offensive potential. One does not simply lead the Quebec Major Junior League in scoring as a 17 year old without a certain amount of talent. Kopitar, Toews, and Bergeron each spend more time on the power play than they do on the penalty kill.
Couturier has clearly shown that he has the defensive chops to be recognized along with Kopitar, Toews, and Bergeron. Unfortunately, he does not have the offensive numbers to go along with such players. His zone starts, quality of teammates, and lack of power play time bury Couturier in a defensive shell that no player can escape. Unless the Flyers find a line that can ease his zone start disparity, give him the opportunity to play with two competent wingers, and offer him consistent power play time we will likely continue to see Couturier a one-dimensional shutdown player.