NEWARK No training wheels for Sean Couturier, who at age 18, played 14:04 in his NHL debut Thursday night, including three shifts in the last five minutes as the Flyers were clinging to a one-goal lead.
Because the wheels started falling off the 2010-11 Flyers in mid-season, there is much to sort out on this vastly-changed team, beyond the 69 goals Coach Peter Laviolette theoretically will be short from the trades of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards.
Couturier doesnt need that pressure, but Blair Betts and Darroll Powe are gone and they Flyers can use another penalty killer and checking center, which according to Laviolette, Couturier showed during the exhibitions he can handle.
Hes our best defensive player, said the coach after the 2-1 win in Boston. Yesterday, that was amended to what was meant to be said was that he was one of our best defensive forwards in the game, but high praise regardless and certainly no swipe at Max Talbot, who also had a good Flyers debut, as did Matt Read, Jakub Voracek and somebody named Jaromir Jagr, who might turn out to be a pretty good player once he gets a few years experience.
So should Couturier, but the Flyers basically have nine more games to decide whether this year will be best spent for him here or back in juniors at Drummondville, Que. They can send Couturier down after the 10-game trial, but then would lose a year towards his eventual eligibility for free agency, but it is already clear, in which direction the Flyers want this to go. We would need to see a dramatic deterioration in Couturiers cool, calm and collected performance in game one, for him to get a longer trial.
If I didnt have confidence in him based on what we have seen, I wouldnt have gone trial and error in the last three minutes of the game. said Laviolette.
Continuing against the Devils Saturday, well see if the adrenaline begins to dissipate and the men separate themselves from an 18-year-old boy still minus the 10-15 pounds Couturier will need to go up against the NHLs very best on a nightly basis.
Sean will be at a different level of strength when he is 22-23 years old but hes not getting out-muscled or out-battled, said Laviolette. At that age some players are really developed. I dont know if its the genes or what it is, but there are lots of players who do well at 18.
A guy who comes to mind is Eric Staal (whom Laviolette coached at Carolina). He came in at 18 and at 23 he was a man and a lot harder to play against.
Chronic losers have been known to eat their young. But there are far more examples than Staal of players not at all harmed for the long run by playing in the NHL perhaps a year too soon. Entry-level contracts are an attractive fit for salary cap purposes, one factor in players increasingly making the NHL in their draft years. Eight of them this season are getting their 10 game trials. But Jeff Skinner, taken seventh overall in 2010, was rookie of the year (with Carolina) so obviously he belonged.
Down the road, Couturier will have four inches and as many as 20 pounds on Richards, the player he ultimately is expected to replace, no small factor in the Flyers decision to take him with the eighth-overall pick acquired along with Voracek for Carter.
"There was a point in junior last year where he was hitting a lot, maybe too much perhaps because he had heard the buzz that he wasnt aggressive enough, said GM Paul Holmgren. Im not sure thats going to really be his game, more like a good offensive player who is very responsible defensively.
But he did try to hit (Zdeno) Chara once.
The kid looked like he was in game No. 100, not game one. The goal, however is for the Flyers to play 100 this season, and whether Couturier can be a part of that is a projection that will have to made at game 10.
I try to take it one day at a time, the kid said. Im just enjoying myself right now.
I was little nervous but once you get out there you feel alright like its just another game. Im just trying to take care of the opportunity I am getting.
Peter Laviolette said he would make his goaltending decision for Saturday, the Devils opener, after talking to goalie coach Jeff Reese . . . Matt Walker, scratched in the opener was the only Flyer who didnt participate in Thursday's 50-minute skate.
We can be better systematically, said Laviolette. But I liked our game.
We turned the puck over a little bit too much at the start but in second period we started pressuring them gave up five chances four on power play. We need to tight things up but overall happy with the effort.
Jay Greenberg covered the Flyers for 14 years for the Daily News and Evening Bulletin. His history of the Flyers, Full Spectrum, was published in 1996. He can be reached at email@example.com.