Top Line Shuffle by Flyers Working Wonders for Giroux, Couturier
Entering the 2017-18 season, expectations were obviously going to be high for Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek. Both were coming off seasons of struggle in the previous year and were going to be watched under a microscope as the highest-paid and top-line players on the team.
In years past, the question of the top line was finding a left winger to be the complement to Giroux and Voracek. It was always assumed that Giroux was the first-line center and nothing could change that.
But the Flyers tried a change during training camp, moving Sean Couturier to the top line center spot and Giroux to the wing. What started as an experiment is far from it now. Instead, it is a move that has worked wonders for Couturier and Giroux.
When Couturier was drafted by the Flyers, his all-around game was heavily promoted, but it was noted that eventually the scoring should come at the NHL level. As an 18-year-old rookie, Couturier had a solid first season, scoring 13 goals and adding 14 assists for 27 points in 77 games. He also scored a hat trick in the playoffs and had four points in 11 games.
But since that rookie season, the expectation that Couturier would eventually turn a corner offensively seemingly became a talking point year after year. He struggled through his second season, the lockout shortened 2013 season, posting just 15 points in 46 games. He topped off at 39 points in his third season and posted 37 in his fourth season in 2014-15, playing in all 82 games.
Then came health issues. Couturier continued to match his point totals over the previous years -- 39 in 2015-16 and 34 in 2016-17 -- but played in just 63 games and 66 games respectively in those years.
Despite being a reliable defensive forward, patience was running thin for Couturier’s offensive potential, to the point where it started to become a question of if he was an expendable player.
So far, Couturier is putting those questions to bed. In his first 15 games on the top line, Couturier has nine goals and nine assists for 18 points, easily on pace to set new career marks across the board. Couturier was even picked as the Flyers biggest surprise of the season by ESPN earlier this week.
That is very much a product of Couturier’s new role, playing up front at the top of the lineup. Playing with playmakers like Giroux and Voracek doesn’t hurt either.
But Giroux is also benefitting from the move. As a center, defensive responsibilities are elevated and it seemed that Giroux was being more exposed at even strength in recent years. It didn’t help that offensive production also started to tail off.
Giroux really asserted himself as the offensive presence in Philadelphia in the 2011-12 season, when he scored 28 goals and posted a career-high 93 points in 77 games. He added 17 more points in 10 playoff games that year.
Giroux held a point-per-game pace for the next two seasons and came very close to that in the 2014-15 season when he posted 73 points in 81 games. And from there, the final totals just continued to decrease. From 28 goals in 2013-14 to 25 to 22 to 14 last season. From 86 points in 2013-14 to 73 to 67 to 58 last season.
With the focus off playing at center and now on the wing, Giroux is going to the scoring areas of the ice more. He’s also starting to shoot the puck more again. In 15 games, Giroux’s production nearly mirrors Couturier’s -- eight goals and nine assists for 17 points. Perhaps even more impressive is that five of Giroux’s goals and seven of his assists have come at even strength.
Giroux is starting to return to the point-per-game form. He’s present offensively again, and that’s certainly a good sign for the Flyers.
With a top line that isn’t so new anymore, now that we’re almost a quarter of the way through the season, the Flyers are starting to see the benefits of a first line that can drive play and be dominant night in and night out. There will be nights when the top line isn’t able to overcome the adversity of being the target of opposing defenses.
But consistency is the important thing, and so far, a rather minor but notable shuffle at the top has been providing that. And it has been working wonders for the two players involved.
Kevin Durso is Flyers editor for SportsTalkPhilly.com. Follow him on Twitter @Kevin_Durso.