Couturier's maturity belies his age
PITTSBURGH -- Flyers rookie Sean Couturier stood in the corner of the visitors' dressing room holding his hat-trick puck, smiling as the cameras rushed over to document the moment and provide the image that one day, much later in his life, will be a cherished piece of his memorabilia.
It isn't right now. Couturier, at 19 years old, is too mature to let his personal success get in the way of the ultimate goal.
"I haven't really thought about it," he told NHL.com shortly after posing with the puck he used to score his hat trick goal with 1:49 left in the Flyers 8-5 win against Pittsburgh on Friday night. "It's special right now. It's great, but what is most important is the big win. We bounced back, battled back hard, and that's most important."
Couturier doesn't look like a teenager. He's tall, somewhat lanky, but strong with long hair that he has to tie back so it doesn't cover his face.
He doesn't speak like a teenager. He doesn't act like one -- and, as if you didn't know this already, he certainly doesn't play like one.
"He plays like he would have played for 20 years," 40-year-old Jaromir Jagr said.
But Couturier hasn't even been alive for 20 years, and here he is playing a starring role for the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- not only with his offensive game, but with the defensive prowess that got him to this point in his oh so very young career.
He has been tasked with shutting down the most dominant player in the NHL today, and he's doing it splendidly. Couturier has three goals and an assist at even strength while Evgeni Malkin, his sparring partner through two games in this wildly exciting Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series, has no even-strength points and is minus-5.
Malkin had 109 points during the regular season; Couturier had 27.
The Flyers have two wins in the playoffs; the Penguins have zero.
"In my hockey career I don't think I've seen somebody that good defensively at a young age," said Jagr, who is clearly one of Couturier's biggest fans.
Jagr compared Couturier to Ron Francis; no small comparison considering Francis is in the Hockey Hall of Fame and is fourth all-time on the NHL scoring list with 1,798 points.
"He showed it the first 10 games he played this season, and coach saw it right away," Jagr continued when asked about Couturier's defense. "He was putting him in that kind of key situation; to be up one goal in the last minute of the game, and he's there. A key faceoff, he's there all the time. I would say he's our best defensive forward at age the age of 18, 19."
Couturier got to this point by being one of the most mature teenagers Flyers coach Peter Laviolette has been around.
"I do think he's a mature kid for his age with regard to having to play against some of the best players in the world in a league that has compromised a lot of men," Laviolette said. "I do think he plays older than he is."
No situation seems too big for Couturier; no stage too grand. He doesn't use words like "surreal" or "overwhelming" to paint a picture of his rookie season and his initiation into Stanley Cup playoff hockey.
Instead, in describing what it was like to score his first career playoff goal, one that just happened to tie the game at 4-4 with 2.8 seconds left in the second period, Couturier said this: "It feels great, but when you're out there you don't really think about it. You just think it's a big goal and it got the team back in the game. That's what is important."
When given a chance to pat himself on the back for the work he's done against Malkin, he offered this: "It feels good. You get the job done, but it's not an easy task and you have to be ready every shift. He can turn the game around quickly. He hasn't been on his game maybe the first two games, but he'll bounce back sooner or later so you've got to be ready."
So where does that maturity come from? Couturier credits his father.
Sylvain Couturier played 33 games over three seasons for the Los Angeles Kings during the early Gretzky years from 1988-92. He also played several more seasons in the minor leagues.
"He played pro hockey, so being around him in the dressing room, you watch players and try to do what they do when you're younger," Couturier said. "It probably helped me just being around him. It helped me mature for sure."
It's Couturier's maturation process at the NHL level that impresses Laviolette so much.
"There is always a feeling out process with players, but we started giving him responsibility in training camp and any time we did that he answered the bell," Laviolette said. "Really he had a tremendous year. He may not win the Calder (Trophy) because he didn't put up 50 points, but he had a terrific year."
Couturier also had a gradual year. He started out playing regular minutes, but as the season wore on those minutes got harder because his responsibilities grew. By the last quarter, he was playing the shutdown role that he is still in today.
"And again he didn't let us down," Laviolette said. "I think it's just getting to know a player, getting him used to the League, the systems, the players, and not overwhelming him right off the bat. Since he's been here he's done a good job; his role has just expanded a little more."
But his personality hasn't changed.
Oh, sure, he is humbled by all he's getting to do at 19 years of age, but Couturier is far too mature to let himself contemplate the magnitude of it all right now.
"It's pretty special in the moment, but you don't really realize it right now," Couturier said. "Probably later, maybe in the summer or the next couple of years, that's when I'll realize it more."