Inside the Flyers: Couturier blossoms into shutdown defender

Sean Couturier is drawing attention around the NHL for the way he has shut down such offensive stars as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jonathan Toews. The 21-year-old center "has good natural instincts," a scout said.
Sean Couturier is drawing attention around the NHL for the way he has shut down such offensive stars as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jonathan Toews. The 21-year-old center "has good natural instincts," a scout said. (YONG KIM / Staff)
Posted: March 24, 2014

With his shaggy, mountain-man beard, the Flyers' Sean Couturier looks and fits the part: a menacing defender who, more frequently than not, shuts down some of the NHL's top centers.

Or, as someone on Twitter so aptly called him: the Wolf of Broad Street.

Couturier, 21, deserves consideration for the Selke Trophy, given to the league's best defensive forward. He won't come close to winning it because the award has morphed into a reward for a forward who is dominating both ways, and Couturier's offense is still in the growing stages.

That said, he is opening eyes around the league for the way he has shut down players such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jonathan Toews. Couturier and linemates Matt Read and Steve Downie are usually assigned to defend an opponent's top unit.

For the season, the line had a combined plus-3 rating entering Saturday, despite facing opponents' most dangerous forwards.

Couturier has "good natural instincts," said New York Rangers scout Doug Risebrough, a former Calgary head coach who spent 13 years as an agitating NHL forward, helping Montreal win four Stanley Cups. "Today, they try to teach that part of the game and guys can acquire a good understanding defensively, but he's pretty young and it seems to come naturally and he knows how to position himself.

"The role of that player is not just to check, but to contribute offensively, and he can do that, too, at some point," Risebrough added.

Some of the top Selke contenders this season include Chicago's Toews (27 goals, 65 points entering the weekend), Boston's Patrice Bergeron (20 goals, 48 points), and St. Louis' David Backes (23 goals, 49 points). All are more offensive-minded than Couturier, who has 10 goals and a career-high 35 points.

"You've got to be able to play both sides of the puck nowadays to probably win that award," Flyers coach Craig Berube said.

The 6-foot-3, 197-pound Couturier is dominant on the defensive side, "and he's growing offensively," Berube said. "In time, I think it's going to be where it needs to be. It's a matter of maybe being a little quicker around the net, shooting pucks, getting more pucks to the net."

"He has good size and he uses his size well," said Risebrough, a former general manager in Calgary and Minnesota. "The one thing you don't want from a defensive player is penalties. You don't want the guy who [in order] to defend, ultimately causes penalties. He has good strength. And it doesn't really show all the time because it's not a stat, but in stick battles, some of that is a component of strength, and in his case he's only going to get stronger."

Couturier, the eighth overall selection in the 2011 draft and a player who had consecutive 96-point seasons in juniors, says he gets a bigger kick scoring goals than preventing them, but he understands his primary job.

"In the role I have, I try to take pride in my defense and shutting down opposite lines," Couturier said. "I think as a line, we need to focus on defense first, and try to create some offense off the other team's line trying to cheat."

In his first year in juniors, Couturier was coached by Guy Boucher, who helped mold him into a defensively responsible player. Boucher later coached Tampa Bay and was known for his 1-3-1 trap.

"He always emphasized the defensive side of the game," Couturier said, "and I learned a lot from him."

Couturier, whose father, Sylvain, played briefly in the NHL, sees himself as a 20- to 25-goal scorer down the road. "Maybe when I get more chances on the power play, or more offensive chances, I'll produce a little more, but right now I'm not really worried. We have a great team and I'm just glad to help the team win."

As for his unkempt beard, Couturier says it has more to do with his superstitious nature.

"I started it around Christmas and we started winning again - and I was scared to shave it," he said. "When I eat, it kind of bothers me, so that's the only thing."

Asked if the beard put fear into the players he was defending, Couturier smiled.

"I'd like to think so, yeah, but I don't want the tough guys coming at me, either," he cracked.


scarchidi@phillynews.com

@BroadStBull

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