2011 prospects: Play speaks volumes for quiet Couturier

By Kevin Forbes
Photo: A fairly introverted player, Couturier didn’t talk to the media much until the 2011 WJC. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Sean Couturier is a quiet young man. So much so that Mario Duhamel, his coach with the Drummondville Voltigeurs frequently uses the term "introverted" to describe the forward. Couturier is said to prefer to let his play on the ice do the talking for him and despite wearing a letter on his jersey, he doesn’t say much in the dressing room.

His QMJHL team even went as far as limiting his media availability over the first half of his draft year to ensure the constant attention that he attracted was not a distraction for their young star. It was a puzzling move in an age when most young players coming up the ranks are as skilled with media relations as they are with the puck.

But Couturier’s silence wouldn’t be as big of a deal if he wasn’t one of the top prospects available in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft and thought to possibly be the best player to come out of the QMJHL since Sidney Crosby was selected first overall in 2005. In fact, earlier in the season, Couturier was touted as a potential candidate to hear his named called first in Minnesota.

It is all for good reason. For one, Couturier has the pedigree. His father, Sylvain played pro hockey, including a taste of the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings over the course of three seasons in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Sylvain is now a general manager in the QMJHL with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan.

Then there’s his experience. Thanks to that late birthday, Couturier has already played in three QMJHL seasons and has been through long playoff runs each year, including an appearance at the Memorial Cup. He’s paired that up with additional opportunities on the international stage, playing for Team Canada on multiple occasions and giving him one of the more impressive resumes among the 2011 draft eligible players.

Finally, there’s the skill level. Blessed with a large frame at 6-4 and 197 pounds, Couturier is not a banger and crasher as some might expect. Instead, he is a playmaker with the ability to slow the game down as soon as he gets the puck on his stick.

As his coach explains, "Sean is a strong guy with a big body. He brings a lot offensively, by way of his puck protection. He’s a guy who plays with his head up, so he’s very aware of his partners and also when we talk offensively, he has a great shot."

Duhamel continues by saying that even with the great shot, Couturier’s first instinct is often to look to set up hisline mates, something that he and the rest of the coaching staff is trying to encourage him to balance better.

Even with these offensive talents, Duhamel is also quick to point out that his young charge is equally attentive in his own end. "He’s a guy who can play well on both sides of the puck and he takes care of his defence also. That’s why he’s over plus-50 this year and I think last year he finished at plus-66. So if you combine the past two years, he’s over plus-110 when it comes to plus/minus, so that just goes to show what kind of guy he is at both sides of the ice."

In fact, in his rookie season, Couturier even saw some shifts as a defenseman.

Drafted second overall in the 2008 QMJHL Entry Draft, behind only Brandon Gormley (a first round selection for the Phoenix Coyotes last season), Couturier stepped right into a spot on the Drummondville Voltigeurs lineup. But unlike many high draft picks, he wasn’t required to immediately be an impact player for the team. In fact, Couturier joined a deep roster who finished first in the league in standings and then went on to win the President’s Cup as the QMJHL champions in 2009.

In a supporting role, Couturier scored nine goals and 31 points in 58 regular season games as well as a goal and eight points in 19 playoff matches, before closing out his rookie year in junior with an appearance at the 2009 Memorial Cup, where Drummondville made it to the semi-finals. He capped off that season with a spot on Team Canada’s Under-18 Team in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. Couturier’s two goals and two assists helped lead Canada to a gold medal.

Returning to Drummondville for his sophomore year, expectations were much higher for Couturier with the extra experience under his belt. Not only did the Voltigeurs lose their top five scorers from the previous year, but their coach, Guy Boucher was also not returning, having been drawn away by the bright lights of the professional ranks.

Given the opportunity to step up and fill a larger role, Couturier did just that. Tallying 41 goals and 96 points in 68 games, the big forward tripled his rookie year output to tie for the league scoring lead. Buoyed by Couturier’s leap in production, the Voltigeurs finished second in the standings and went on another long playoff run before bowing out in the third round. Over the course of 14 post season matches, Couturier scored 10 goals and put up 18 points.

This meteoric rise surprised even Duhamel, who replaced Boucher as the Voltigeurs coach. As Duhamel explains, "When I arrived on the scene, I knew that we had a great player in our roster, but I never thought he would finish first in scoring in the league."

It was under these circumstances that Couturier entered his draft year, with all eyes focused intently on him.

Though he battled a bout with mononucleosis over the summer, Couturier was widely considered the consensus top prospect entering into the 2010-11 season and was garnering plenty of attention.

Coming out of the gate, his play did not take a notable hit but Duhamel, along with the rest of the staff in Drummondville and Couturier’s agent made sure to step in so that the media attention would not distract the young phenom.

"At the beginning of the season, he didn’t struggle, but he had a little bit of a hard time with all that, with all the media situation, because like I said, he’s an introverted guy, so at the beginning of the season, maybe he had a tough time to handle that but I think he learned a lot from that. It’s normal and it’s part of the process for a young athlete to learn to deal with that," explains Duhamel.

"We wanted to make sure that he wouldn’t lose his focus because the first point is always to make sure he’s ready to play hockey and at the beginning of the season, with all the attention that he had with the World Juniors, and all the lists and that stuff, it was huge. It is huge, it’s a lot of stuff for a guy who is 17-years-old."

Though Duhamel is quick to point out that if it was left up to Couturier, he would have entertained every request for an interview or a quote, the coach also makes sure to explain how quiet and unassuming the big forward is off the ice.

"He’s an introverted guy, he’s a quiet guy, he’s a guy that will do his own job but he’s very quiet in his own life, just doing his training, sleeping, eating. In the room, he’s more a guy that will bring his leadership by his action on the ice. He’s not a guy that will talk a lot, but just his presence, his physical presence both in the room and on the ice, shows a lot and talks a lot. He’s a guy that will let the other guys speak but he always makes sure that he’s ready for the games and that he brings his ‘A’ game. He wants to the best on the ice and that’s the way he talks, simple as that."

Choosing to limit Couturier’s media availability may have been a unique way to deal with the situation, but one cannot argue with the results.

Couturier won a spot on Team Canada’s World Junior squad and was the only draft eligible player on the team. In the tournament, he scored two goals and had three points in seven games, along with a plus-six, while playing a strong two-way role and helping Canada win the silver medal.

Meanwhile, in the QMJHL, Couturier was once again leaned on heavily to carry the hopes of the Voltigeurs. With 13 rookies in the lineup, the team turned to star player to carry the load.

"You can always be successful when you have an outstanding player like him in your lineup." says Duhamel.

Drummondville surprised many teams by once again putting up a strong season and finished fourth in the standings. Couturier matched his previous season’s totals with a 96 point effort in ten fewer games, finishing in a tie with linemate Ondrej Palat for fourth in the league in scoring.

After an easy four game sweep in the first round, Drummondville bowed out to eventual league runner-up Gatineau in the second round. Over the course of ten post season matches, Couturier scored six goals and had 11 points.

It is possible that those may be the last points Couturier scores at the junior level. His coach does not expect to see him return to Drummondville after the draft and believes he’s ready to make the jump directly to the NHL.

"We really think that he will be an NHL player next year, it’s just a question of time. He proved a lot in major junior and in the playoffs." With that said, Duhamel is quick to point out that he would welcome Couturier back with open arms if the situation occurs. "For sure, if you ask me if number seven can have a spot in the lineup next year, I will say yes, we’ll keep a spot for him."

But that isn’t to say that the big center doesn’t have parts of his game that still need improvement. As he continues to mature and grow into his frame, his game will benefit from added strength and speed.

According to Duhamel, "He has good speed right now, but he still needs to work on that, specifically his first three steps. We’re sure that that is going to come with time and that he’s just going to get bigger and stronger, especially stronger physically because Sean is 6’4, 200 pounds but he’s not strong physically yet. He has great balance and he’s certainly strong when compared to the other guys in the league but for sure he can put a lot more muscle on his body as he continues his career. He just needs to get stronger, especially in his legs, and that will help him with his first three steps."

Although no longer expected to be the first name called, most feel that the top few spots in the draft are wide open and Couturier’s name is definitely in the mix. Though his experiences over the last three years may have led to him being considered a "safe" pick and certainly has many believing that he could step into the NHL as early as next season, Couturier’s breakout season last year may have also worked against him.

As Chris Mooring, head QMJHL Scout for International Scouting Services explains, "I think a little bit of a knock on him is that he really hasn’t developed much more than where he was last year. You don’t see a marked improvement in his game from last year and I think he’s fallen in a lot of peoples eyes."

With that said, Mooring is also quick to point out "I still think he’s a top five pick."

Kim Houston from the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau agrees with Mooring’s assessment, stating "I think he’s progressed but I think there are just other guys that have progressed more."

Even if he isn’t the first name called, there is no question that Couturier is one of the top talents available at the draft this year.