Getting Defensive
Known better for preventing goals than scoring them, versatile center Sean Couturier makes no apologies for his singular focus: reestablishing the Flyers as a dominant NHL team
by Bill Donahue

Certain parts of the world are known for producing great hockey players: the wheat fields of western Canada, the outskirts of Moscow, the frozen ponds of New England. Then there’s the curious case of Sean Couturier, who hails from a place generally considered inhospitable to ice hockey—Phoenix, in the heart of the Arizona desert.

At the time of Couturier’s birth, his father, Sylvain, a former National Hockey League forward, was playing for the Phoenix Roadrunners of the now defunct International Hockey League. In other words, hockey was destined to become an integral part of young Sean’s life, regardless of where he was born.

The lanky Couturier has since become a versatile two-way center for the Philadelphia Flyers. Although he nets his share of highlight-reel goals, he’s best known for killing penalties and keeping opposing teams’ best players off the score sheet. His defense-oriented style is one of the primary reasons the Flyers brought him into the fold following his outstanding career in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Couturier joined the Flyers at the outset of the 2011-2012 season, in the aftermath of one of the most dramatic shakeups in the team’s recent history. Two seasons prior, the Flyers had returned to the Stanley Cup Final, only to lose in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks. The following season, the Flyers had an unexpectedly early exit from the playoffs—courtesy of that year’s Stanley Cup champions, the Boston Bruins—thereby causing Paul Holmgren, the club’s general manager at the time, to effectively dismantle the team’s core.

In one whirlwind day in June 2011, Holmgren traded away centerpiece players Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. In came the likes of Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and Jake Voracek to complement the team’s newly anointed franchise forward, Claude Giroux. The very next day, the Flyers used the first-round pick acquired in the Carter deal to draft Couturier. A few months later, after an impressive training camp, Couturier earned a spot on the Flyers’ opening-night roster. At the time, he was a fresh-faced teenager, no more than 18 years old.

Much has changed in the years since. Following a string of underperforming seasons—the Flyers have missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs in two of the past three seasons—the Flyers remain a team in flux. Some of the team’s most dynamic players have moved on, either through trades, free agency or retirement, making the roster unrecognizable when compared with the teams of just a few years ago. Forwards Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell and Jaromir Jagr, defensemen Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky—all are gone, leaving players such as Couturier, who recently turned 23, to assume the mantle of leadership.

“I learned a lot from the other players I’ve played with, like Jagr my first year, Pronger, Timonen, Briere—these were great veterans,” says Couturier, who lives in Philadelphia. “I learned a lot just being around them on a daily basis. Now I’m older and maturing, and I try to take a bigger role and provide more leadership and try to share that with some of the younger guys.

“I think I’m always going to be a two-way guy you can rely on to play against the top lines in whatever situation you want me,” he continues. “The last two summers I’ve been trying to get bigger and stronger, add a little weight, and I think that will benefit me. Over the summer I added four or five pounds, and I definitely feel a lot stronger out there, a lot more confident with the puck.”

Tough Road
The first season under new head coach Dave Hakstol has had a bipolar feel, giving Flyers fans cause for celebration one game and consternation the next. High-scoring superstars Giroux and Voracek have looked like mere mortals, statistically speaking, with little offensive support for one of the league’s best goaltending tandems in Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth. Also, a rash of injuries—Couturier missed a handful of games to recover from a concussion sustained during a game against Boston, courtesy of a reckless hit from former teammate Zac Rinaldo—has forced Coach Hakstol to rely too heavily on a largely untested group that includes several rookies.

“The real key to getting the Flyers back to playoff-level [play]—which has to be aimed at next year, not this season—is defensive improvement,” says Dan Flaherty, a researcher with, a public sports-handicapping organization. “This has been a problem with this team for several years now. They haven’t had even an above-average defense since they had their run to the [Stanley Cup Final] in 2010, and then were good most of the year in 2011 before the goaltending and defense started to come undone and they lost early in the playoffs.”

Flaherty believes the team also needs to get tougher against opponents, especially in their own end. In this regard, he appreciates what players such as Radko Gudas, a hard-hitting defenseman acquired before last year’s trade deadline, bring to the team. With Gudas taking on a more prominent role, and with other defensemen stepping up their level of play, Flaherty believes the Flyers will “start to resemble their best teams of years past.”

“This is a franchise with a proud history of physical play, going back to the glory days of the Broad Street Bullies,” he says. “It’s a great fan base that appreciates the importance of playing tough.”

As Flaherty suggests, the Flyers’ inability to get over the .500 hump this year makes the idea of a playoff berth seem improbable. Short-term pain aside, an influx of young talent expected to crack the lineup by the start of next season makes the Flyers’ future incredibly bright, according to Sam Carchidi, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s longtime Flyers beat reporter.

“They’ve got some real good core players in Giroux and Voracek and Mason—I would also include Wayne Simmonds as part of that core group—and you’re also seeing the start of a youth movement,” says Carchidi, who is currently working on “If These Walls Could Talk: Philadelphia Flyers,” a book from Triumph Books slated for release in 2016. “You’ve also got prospects like Travis Konecny, who I think will be a Flyer next year; it’s the same with [Shayne] Gostisbehere, Travis Sanheim, Samuel Morin and Ivan Provorov. You have this influx of young guys. Put them in with the Girouxs of the team, and that’s a pretty good formula.

“You have to have patience,” he continues. “[General manager Ron] Hextall is doing things the right way. As soon as he gets some cap space—and I wouldn’t be surprised if they traded [injured defenseman Mark] Streit, once he gets healthy—he’s going to make the necessary moves you want to make. The good thing is, they have a goalie, which I think is the most important position. I’m confident Mason and Neuvirth will be a good combination for quite a few years.”

Another key to the team’s success, he believes, is the development of maturing players such as Couturier and Schenn. Couturier, who signed a six-year contract extension over the summer, has scored an average of 14 goals per season over his three full seasons with the team, not including the lockout-shortened season of 2012-2013. Carchidi believes Couturier needs to get to the next level—breaking the 20-goal plateau—while continuing to excel in his primary duties of neutralizing other teams’ best players.

Regardless of how many goals he scores this season or how many opponents he shuts down, Couturier’s primary focus for the near term has little to do with personal accomplishments.

“The playoffs—that’s the main goal, to try to win,” he says. “To get there, we’ve got to take it one game at a time and not think too far ahead. We’ve just got to be ready every night. … On a short-term basis, I don’t set too big goals. It’s a long season, and there are going to be some ups and downs. You just want to stay away from the downs as much as possible.”

Breaking Away
Forward Brayden Schenn looks to have a big year with the Flyers

Brayden Schenn was a central character in the purge—or, more respectfully, The Purge.

In June 2011, after the Flyers were swept from the second round of the playoffs by the Boston Bruins, Flyers GM Paul Holmgren upended the apple cart. He traded his team captain, the gritty forward Mike Richards, to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Schenn and forward Wayne Simmonds. Holmgren also sent high-scoring winger Jeff Carter to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for promising forward Jake Voracek and a first-round pick in the NHL Draft that the Flyers used to acquire Sean Couturier. As part of the binge, Holmgren traded for enigmatic goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, a gamble that, within a few seasons, ultimately proved a bust.

Five seasons into his tenure as a Flyer, Schenn has made his mark with the team by copying Richards’ approach to the game—“playing hard at both ends of the ice and being a good leader.”

“In junior [hockey], you’re the go-to guy,” says Schenn, whose favorite player growing up was Pavel Bure, the speedy Russian goal-scoring machine. “The biggest challenge of this game is just the day-to-day NHL mentality. You need to come to the rink and play hard and be consistent. When you play junior hockey, maybe you can take a night off out there and still end up with a couple of goals; that’s just the way it goes. Here, if you’re not ready to play every night, it sure shows.

“I was a prospect when I came here,” he continues, “and I was lucky enough to learn from so many guys who gave a veteran presence. They were here to keep you on your toes and remind you that you are a rookie and that you still have a lot to learn.”

The 24-year-old Schenn, whose older brother, Luke, plays defense for the Flyers, has entered the final year of his current contract. This means he’s essentially “playing for a contract,” according to Sam Carchidi, beat writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“He needs to show he can be elite,” says Carchidi, suggesting that, although Schenn has become a valuable player, he has not yet become a vital one. “The key to being a good pro is consistency, and if he’s playing consistently night to night and becoming the player the Flyers want him to be, he should be scoring 75 to 80 points a year.”

Schenn has steadily increased his point production every year since joining the Flyers. This year has been one of ups and downs; he was scratched from the lineup for one game and then spent the next playing on the top line with superstar center Claude Giroux. Playing under Dave Hakstol—a first-year NHL coach known for bringing out the best in young talent—should help his development, according to Carchidi. As of press time, Schenn was third, behind Giroux and Simmonds, for the team lead in goals.

“My goal is to keep growing and developing, to learn from the older guys,” says Schenn, who lives in Philadelphia. “I’ve been around here for a while now—my fifth season. [Hakstol] is looking for a big year from all of us in this locker room. We’ve been together for a while now, and it’s a make-or-break year for us. It’s up to us to make a splash. It’s up to us to make something happen.”

Photograph by NHL/Getty Images