Turn the clock back a year ago and there was talk of Sean Couturier being among the vote-getters for Rookie of the Year.
He had shown impressive street smarts on the ice, feistiness on draws, and at 19, had become one of the Flyers’ best penalty killers.
“There is no question that expectations always grow with a young player,” coach Peter Laviolette said of Couturier this week. “You expect more, and players expect more of themselves as they mature and gain more experience. They learn and they play in different situations and expand their roles on the team.”
Welcome to the often talked about sophomore slump.
“Yeah, I’ve heard of it,” Couturier said with a half-smile.
The young centerman (he's 20 now) has gone from having the world on a string to hanging by a thread trying to find his game during this lockout-shortened season.
He's gone from a plus-18 rating last year to minus-8 this season, as the Flyers prepare to face the Devils Wednesday and Friday in two must-win situations.
“Coots,” as teammates call him, has not scored a goal in 21 games. He had 13 last season versus two now.
“I try not to think too much about my production,” Couturier said. “I’m trying to do little details. Things have not gone my way. Trying to work hard and things will turn around soon.”
He’ll be on a new line Wednesday – French Connection II – with Danny Briere and Simon Gagne. It will be his 12th different line this season in an attempt to find chemistry.
“We’re trying to get things going and get a couple wins in a row,” Couturier said. “Get the right chemistry. Hopefully things work out.”
Then he smiled.
“We can speak French and get some strategy going without the other team knowing it."
That Couturier still finds humor in tough times is a good sign.
There’s a number of theories as to why Couturier, among several other Flyers, is having a poor season.
First, his role has changed, from a fourth-line player whose focus was primarily defense, to a guy who's played on a second and third line this season with more offensive responsibility.
“It shouldn’t be [hard],” Couturier said of the shift. “Every year, especially at a young age, like me, you should improve and get better.”
Last season, Couturier hovered at 50 percent faceoffs and finished at 48 percent. Moving up the depth chart, however, also means facing better centers in the circle. Hence his percentage has fallen (42.6 percent).
“Maybe, but at the same time, that is what I do,” he said. “There are no excuses, not anymore, especially with the short season. You can’t find excuses. You got to go out there and get the job done.
“[My role] should be the same as last year: a solid two-way player who takes cares of details and my offense will come. I know I have the offensive tools to produce. I have to be patient. And weigh my chances.”
You might think Couturier’s shot totals are down. They’re not. Couturier averages about 1.6 shots a game – a tenth of a percentage point higher than last season.
That said, he’s had seven games this season without a shot. Last week, the Flyers had three crucial games against the Rangers, Penguins and Bruins. Couturier didn’t have a single shot in any of those games. That can’t happen.
So what’s the difference? For one, he’s not getting the quality chances to make shots count on some nights. Other times, he muffs one: Open net in Boston in the slot on Saturday, he shot high and wide, then looked up to TD Garden’s rafters for solace.
“Like all players, there are probably points where you are on top of your game and points where you feel you can contribute more,” Laviolette said. “That especially comes into play with younger players. You gotta remember how young he is. I think Sean has played well for us, at times, and at other times he is probably looking for more consistency in his game.”
Since his arrival here from junior, Couturier has taken residence with Briere, who has become his mentor and confidante.
“We’re pretty close,” Couturier admits. “I can talk to him pretty much about anything and he will be there for me.”
Briere believes too much is expected of Couturier, too soon. While there may be some truth to that, you have to remember that when the Flyers let Jaromir Jagr go, their rationale was that there would be increased scoring to make up the difference from players such as Couturier, Matt Read, Max Talbot and Jakub Voracek.
Only Voracek has raised his game this season.
“Sean’s role has increased,” Briere said. “People expected him to go from 12 goals to 25 right away. I think he is doing fine. Like everybody else in this room, he’s had a game here or there not up to par. I think Sean is playing good and is a force defensively. That’s his primary role on this team.”
Couturier has seen a three-minute increase in ice time this season to 17:07. That translates into five or six shifts a game.
“If the coaches trust him, he must he doing some good things out there,” Briere said. “People look at goals and assists, but it’s not really his role. He has been good on the penalty kill and if he just keeps it, the goals [will] start coming for him.”
Laviolette has to be careful of how much pressure he places on Couturier at such a young age.
“There is a time to be firm and also a time with young players where you talk to them and understand their situation and where they’re at and help them find their confidence and find their game,” Laviolette said.
Couturier says he intends to be patient with himself.
“I’d like to contribute a little more,” he said. “But at same time we have a lot of talent in this room. Be patient and figure out my offensive role.”