Sean Couturier signed a contract extension with the Flyers on Aug. 26, 2021. It followed another strong showing in the shortened 2020-21 season, where Couturier had played 45 games and had 18 goals and 41 points.

That was the follow-up to his Selke Trophy-winning season in 2019-20, where he had 22 goals and 59 points in 69 games and emerged as the Flyers clear-cut No. 1 center.

Extending Couturier was a no-brainer for the Flyers at that time. But what followed was certainly a trying couple of years for the former first-round pick.

Offensive Production Questions

It took time for Couturier to emerge as the player he has become. He was drafted eighth overall by the Flyers in the 2011 NHL Draft, fresh off a season with 36 goals and 96 points in 58 games with Drummondville in the QMJHL.

He made the Flyers out of training camp, played in 77 games in his rookie season, and scored 13 goals and had 27 points, a modest start to his career for an 18-year-old.

The next few seasons saw little increase in offensive production. He scored just four goals and 15 points in 46 games in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. He had 13 goals and 39 points in his third season in 2013-14. His fourth season saw a two-goal increase to 15 on the season, but a two-point decrease to 37.

By the time Couturier was entering his seventh season in the NHL, his career-best totals were 15 goals and 39 points. Despite his tremendous defensive abilities, it seemed like that was the peak of Couturier’s offensive production.

Emerging as a Top-Line Center

Couturier’s two best seasons came in back-to-back years. In 2017-18, Couturier went from 14 goals and 34 points in 66 games in the previous season to 31 goals and 76 points in 82 games, setting new career-marks across the board.

The Flyers made the playoffs that season, facing the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. While they were ousted in six games, Couturier had five goals and nine points in five games, missing Game 4 due to an MCL injury suffered in a collision at practice. He returned for Game 5, battling through the pain, to score the game-winning goal that extended the series. In Game 6, he had a hat trick and two assists for a five-point game.

That dedication to the team, that kind of performance and leadership, led to Couturier wearing a letter for the first time in his career the following season. In the 2018-19 season, he set another career-high with 33 goals and had 76 points again in 80 games.

Then came his 2019-20 Selke-winning season. Additionally, Couturier had two goals and nine points in 15 games.

The Back Injuries

Following the contract extension, Couturier started the 2021-22 season on a similar pace to his previous production. He had six goals and 17 points over the first 29 games.

Then, the injuries set in. A back injury that forced Couturier from the lineup in December ended his season officially in February, when he underwent back surgery.

As preparations began for the 2022-23 season, the first under current Flyers head coach John Tortorella, Couturier was not able to get on the ice from the official opening of training camp. The back injury returned just days before camp, and another surgery in October ultimately kept him off the ice for the entire season.

The missed 2022-23 season was the first in the eight-year, $62 million extension Couturier had signed in the summer of 2021. It was reasonable to be skeptical that Couturier could even play again, let alone be the leader and performer he once was.

The Return and the Captaincy

But Couturier returned – cleared to play, fresh and ready to go at the start of training camp this season. In 50 games, he has scored 11 goals and 33 points, not quite the offensive pace of previous seasons, but still as steady as ever in turning strong defensive play into offense.

Just days before the announcement of the captaincy, Couturier scored the game-winning goal against the Seattle Kraken. Seattle had tied the game seconds into the third period on a shot that deflected off of Couturier’s stick and went into the Flyers net. Couturier was visibly frustrated following the goal, and got an earful on the bench from Tortorella.

“I respect Coots, but I needed more out of him,” Tortorella said after the game. “I was waiting most of the night for that to get going. He probably doesn’t need to hear it, but probably will again if it happens that way.”

On the next shift, he deflected a shot for the eventual game-winner, complete with emphatic celebration.

“That’s what I like about him. He’s a crusty old pro,” Tortorella said. “He’s a huge part of this. I have a tremendous amount of respect for how he’s handled this year after taking two years off. But there’s no free passes. We need him terribly in games to be consistent.

“He knows when things are going well, when he needs to do more. But it was frustrating for me, because we needed him and he ends up scoring a goal next shift, and then he played some key minutes after that. He’s a huge part to this team if we’re going to win. He’s not allowed to have a bad night or take a night off. We’re not good enough for him to be average.”

That level of leadership, the battles to become among the top two-way forwards in the game, the struggles with injury, the doubts that he would ever return to form, they have all been rewarded.

The announcement of the captaincy comes at a surprising time. Tortorella had stressed for months, since the open of training camp, that there would likely be no captain this season.

But this Flyers season has been all about surprises. The team has firmly placed themselves in the playoff discussion. Couturier’s performance at both ends of the ice is a big reason for that. And now it is capped off with the ‘C’ being stitched on his sweater.

Kevin Durso is Flyers insider for 97.3 ESPN. Follow him on social media @Kevin_Durso.

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