Winging it: How Flyers’ top-line shakeup unleashed Sean Couturier

The Flyers started the 2017-18 season with a bit of a shocking announcement: captain and top line center Claude Giroux would be moving to the wing. 

The decision came after a couple seasons where Giroux’s even-strength production had been dropping off dramatically. His power play numbers remained among the best in the league, but it appeared that five-on-five hockey wasn’t working out as well for him as it had in the past.

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The solution for the Flyers was to try out Sean Couturier in a new role as the pivot on the top line between Giroux and Jakub Voracek. Couturier has been a brilliant possession driver and checking center for a few years now, but hadn’t fulfilled the offensive promise that his draft position and junior career would hint he was capable of.

The result has been a stroke of brilliance, with that line becoming the NHL’s most productive trio in the NHL at even strength with more than 75 minutes of ice time together so far this season, producing 5.17 goals for per 60 minutes. Part of their success has been an unsustainable on-ice shooting percentage of 13.6 percent so far, but even using Corsica.Hockey’s expected goals model, they rank as the seventh-best regular line in the league, with an expected goals for percentage of 58.9 percent. 

One of the biggest reasons for that line’s success has been a newfound finishing ability from Couturier, who has embraced his role as a goal scorer on a line with two elite-level playmakers. 

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Couturier’s game at the NHL level has always leaned more toward playmaking, with relatively strong primary assist numbers the last few years, but he has also been gradually improving his shooting game, and that has blossomed this season into 10 goals in 16 games, only five less than his career high of 15 in 82 games in 2014-15.

When you look at Couturier’s shooting data since that season, you can see the positive trend leading up to this offensive explosion.

sean-couturier-graphic

Couturier is currently finishing at above the expected rate on his shots, but not all of that is luck, as he’s put up career-high rates in shots, scoring chances, shot attempts and high-danger scoring chances. 

One thing to keep in mind with scoring chance data is that it counts all shot attempts as chances, so not all of Couturier’s shots on goal are chances, but a huge portion of them are. Even more impressive is that no player in the NHL has put more high-danger scoring chances on net at even strength than Couturier has, a big reason behind his goal-scoring prowess so far this season.

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That increase in offense does come with a tradeoff on defense, as Couturier has gone from seasons where he’s on the ice for 6.53 and 4.13 fewer shot attempts against per 60 minutes than his teammates when he’s on the bench, to just 0.5 fewer, but the increased offense has been so strong that his overall Corsi relative to his teammates has risen 3.75 percent and 4.7 percent the last two seasons to 11.89 percent this season.

Shifting Giroux to the wing the same season the Flyers traded away Brayden Schenn definitely did some damage to their center depth, and Valtteri Filppula, Jori Lehtera and Scott Laughton are an underwhelming group to round out their lines compared to the depth they had last year. But at the same time, the Flyers managed to rejuvenate Giroux’s career and unlock another level from Couturier with one decision, so it’s tough to argue against it.

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