Flyers

Flyers finding their top-line center and 'Answer' in Sean Couturier

Flyers finding their top-line center and 'Answer' in Sean Couturier

VOORHEES, N.J. — Can Philadelphia accept two Answers?

The nickname so passionately attached to superstar Hall of Famer Allen Iverson, who had a bulldog tattooed on his left arm with “The Answer” inscription above it, has now been adopted by the Flyers for their top-line center Sean Couturier, but for far different reasons.

“We call him ‘The Answer’ because we feel he always has the answer for whatever you say,” linemate Jakub Voracek said. “We just make fun of him a lot.”

While players and media members were digging for the answer to a certain trivia question following Monday’s practice, Claude Giroux looked around for Couturier’s “wisdom” since, as the captain jokingly put it, “he knows everything,” including all the rules to whatever games the team play on road trips.

However, if the question posed coming into this season was about how to get Voracek and Giroux back to playing at an elite level again, especially at even strength? Well, Couturier has been that answer.

“One hundred percent, 100 percent,” Voracek said. “He’s a very responsible guy that plays very good on both sides of the puck and it shows. He creates more space for me and 'G' to go in the offense and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Saturday against the Capitals, the line of Giroux-Couturier-Voracek resembled something from the Legion of Doom era. After a pair of lackluster shifts to begin the game, the trio quickly shifted into overdrive and took over the game as it combined for four goals, six assists and a plus-10 rating against the top-ranked defensive team from last season.

Couturier scored twice against the Caps, including the game's opening tally, when he finished off a slick passing play between him, Voracek and Giroux by slamming home a rebound. He now has three goals and three assists on the young season through five games with his new linemates.

“I think they can bring a lot to my game and I can bring something to their game,” Couturier said. “So far, it’s been working pretty good. I think we still can get better — have more of a shooting mentality. My minutes aren’t changing. The quality of players I’m playing with are. Playing with two great guys, two great players.”

If the organizational philosophy was to establish a better 5-on-5, even-strength presence by inserting Couturier as the top-line center, then the Flyers came to the right place. In the last 24 games he's played dating back to last season, Couturier has eight goals and 15 assists for 23 points. Couturier is a whopping plus-27 over his last 26 games dating back to Feb. 28 of last season. Not only does he lead the NHL by a wide margin, but as the chart suggests, no one else is even close to Couturier's dominance:

Plus/minus leaders since Feb. 28

1. Sean Couturier (PHI) +27
2. Jaden Schwartz (STL) +15
2. David Savard (CBJ)
2. Brett Pesce (CAR)
5. Five players at +14

“It’s nice. I try to take pride in being a solid 200-foot player,” Couturier said. “I’m reliable defensively and offensively I can produce and help out, and so far, it’s been clicking. As much as they can bring a lot to me, I think I can bring a lot to their 5-on-5 game here.”

In a game where speed, skill and shot-creating ability are the dominant traits for a top-line center, Couturier is unique in that he doesn’t possess those exceptional attributes. He’s in sound position, defensively responsible and, when provided with skilled wingers, can generate occasional offense as a result of strong puck possession. If you’re looking for another No. 1 center with a similar game, then perhaps Carolina’s Jordan Staal would serve as Couturier’s closest comparison.

In the two-plus seasons he’s been in Philadelphia, head coach Dave Hakstol has seen steady improvement out of Couturier.

“I think he just continues to grow as a player,” Hakstol said. “He’s got a lot of games played in the league, no question, so he’s very much a veteran in that sense. I think he’s continued to improve his faceoffs. That’s one area where I think he’s continued to improve and has done a very good job, and I know he’s hungry offensively.”    

From the moment Couturier was drafted eighth overall in 2011 following back-to-back 96-point seasons with an average of nearly 40 goals a year in the QMJHL, the Flyers anticipated having a bona-fide goal-scorer on their hands for years to come. However, those numbers should have been locked up in a time capsule and buried in the bowels of the Wells Fargo Center because Couturier was never asked to be that type of player.

Until Nolan Patrick arrived on the scene, Couturier was the last Flyer to earn a spot on the team in the same year he was drafted. Like most 18-year-olds who show up for boot camp, Couturier never questioned his assignments and took whatever duties and responsibilities he was given with an understood, “Sir, yes sir” approach, but in the back of his mind, he was always capable of so much more.

“I always believed I could produce offensively at this level, but it was more just the situations I was put in I think,” said Couturier, who began his NHL career as a fourth-line checking center. “Coming into the league, there wasn’t much room for me in the top six or top nine. I was taking whatever role I could to help the team and I think I did pretty good in a shutdown role.

“It did get pretty frustrating at times. People see you as a shutdown guy. That can be most frustrating at times. I don’t want to complain about ice time and stuff, but like I say, it’s always been the situation I’ve been put in.”

Now Couturier finds himself in a situation even Philadelphia’s original “Answer” could envy.

The opportunity to score more working alongside a very high-caliber supporting cast.

It's back to school for Flyers prospect Noah Cates

philadephia_flyers_noah_cates_development_camp.jpg
Philadelphia Flyers

It's back to school for Flyers prospect Noah Cates

Noah Cates became a hit in high school.

His first year after graduation, though, he didn't exactly mind being away from the classroom. From Stillwater, Minnesota, Cates traveled south to Omaha, Nebraska, for a full season of USHL hockey with the Lancers.

A nice, little perk to the decision?

"No school that year for me, so that was fun just to play hockey," Cates said with a smile three weeks ago at Flyers development camp. "Develop, work on everything."

Despite not hitting the books, Cates, a 2017 fifth-round draft pick of the Flyers, learned a lot, gaining a knowledge base he'll use moving forward.

Because it's back to school.

In mid-to-late August, the 19-year-old is headed to the University of Minnesota Duluth to continue his education and hockey career with the 2018 national champions, where he'll be joined by his older brother Jackson Cates.

"Very excited," the younger Cates said.

A year away from home to prepare for the college hockey life did Cates well. He grew on and off the ice, which built confidence — especially important ahead of development camp, a world junior summer showcase and his freshman season.

"Just how to be a pro, show up every day," Cates said. "It's a long season but you have to be consistent — that was a big part for me. Consistently, doing the right thing, day in and day out.

"It's all about confidence. If you're confident you can play with those guys and that your body can hold up, you can do it. That's just a big part of it and what I developed this year."

Cates, a left winger with a true offensive skill set, came on strong after a feeling-out start to the season in which he totaled 14 points (six goals, eight assists) over his first 22 games. From then on, he broke out for 41 points (15 goals, 26 assists) in his final 38 contests, finishing second on the Lancers with 55 points (21 goals, 34 assists) in 60 games, while posting a plus-21 rating. 

"Second-half league for me, just got more comfortable with the team, the coaches, the league," Cates said. "The team did well, so I kind of fit in, did my part."

The offense has always been a part of Cates' game. Beyond the statistics, what truly stood out from the 2017-18 season was the added strength to his 6-foot-1 frame. Cates weighed 165 pounds at 2017 development camp. He said he started the year with Omaha at 170. Impressively, by season's end, he was a solid 180 to 185.

"That was a big part, how I progressed throughout the season," Cates said. "That was my main goal going there to step into college hockey and get ready to play against those older guys, so it was a really good season in that case."

Cates will now take his next test — back in class and on the ice.

More on the Flyers

Nolan Patrick selected as No. 1 breakout player for 2018-19 by NHL Network

usa_nolan_patrick.jpg
USA Today Images

Nolan Patrick selected as No. 1 breakout player for 2018-19 by NHL Network

Nolan Patrick's rookie season can be split into two halves, but his performance down the stretch has caught the attention of one national pundit.

NHL Network analyst Mike Johnson, who played 12 years in the league, selected Patrick as his No. 1 breakout player for the 2018-19 season during Friday night's "NHL Tonight."

Johnson scored 375 points in 661 NHL games from 1996-2008 and last played in the league during the 2007-08 campaign with the St. Louis Blues.

Behind Johnson's reasoning for picking Patrick as his No. 1 breakout player was the Flyers' center's two-way instincts, ability to finish, size and a full summer of training ahead of him.

"We know his injury history, his lack of proper training, his lack of ability to hit the gym properly," Johnson said, "and he's still strong on the wall. That's only going to get better as he matures physically."

For what it's worth, Connor McDavid was NHL Network's No. 1 breakout candidate for the 2017-18 season — that was a bit of a softball.

As for Patrick, the center joined "NHL Tonight" on Friday to discuss the honor and also provide an update on how his summer is going.

"Coming off that surgery last year," Patrick said, "I had a slow start. It took a while to get my body back to where I wanted it to be. I missed two summers of training. It's been the first summer for me in a while that I've been back in the gym."

Patrick, the No. 2 overall pick in 2017, finished with 13 goals and 30 points in 73 regular-season games. He missed nine games in October and November because of a concussion and spent most of the first half of the season getting his mobility back after undergoing offseason abdominal surgery. In fact, he's lost his past two summers of training because of surgery.

Prior to his final junior season and his draft year, Patrick underwent sports hernia surgery. Then 10 days before the Flyers drafted him, he went under the knife again.

Now he's fully healthy and has a full summer of training.

"First time I can get after it," Patrick said during the team's exit interviews in April (see story). "It's going to be a big summer for me. I'm not satisfied with how the year was or how my year was, so I'm looking to take big steps here."

Once Patrick began feeling healthier, he started getting a bigger role with the Flyers. He was elevated to the team's second-line center and stuck. He also found a role on the power play.

The 19-year-old posted 17 points in the final 25 games, which translates to a respectable 0.68 points per game clip and 55 points over an 82-game schedule. Not too bad for a rookie who couldn't actually train during his previous two offseasons.

"My coaches pushed me throughout the year. Then they gave me more opportunity," Patrick told the NHL Network. "Jake Voracek was huge for me. He thinks the game so well. The puck protection that guy has, you just got to get open for him.

"I think my body also just felt better as the year went on. I kind of took a while to get my skating legs there, so I think in the second half, I had a little more pep in my step."

More on the Flyers