Sean Couturier's return to Flyers is much more than a feel-good story

Sean Couturier has made an instant impact in Philadelphia this season after returning from a career-threatening injury.

Welcome to 5 insights and observations. Every week, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines and general musings around the NHL.

This week we talk about Sean Couturier’s triumphant return, power-play formations, Alex Ovechkin's sluggish start, the All Salary Cap Casualty Team and the world championship springboard.

Sean Couturier has given the Flyers a big boost in his return from injury. (The Canadian Press)
Sean Couturier has given the Flyers a big boost in his return from injury. (The Canadian Press)

Couturier thriving in return from long layoff

Sean Couturier missed all of last season — his first of an eight-year, $62-million contract — after he underwent two back surgeries. He only played 29 games in 2021-22, so it was really a season and a half he missed, or more specifically, 663 days between regular season games. It’s a great story that he even made it back at all, but it isn't just a sentimental return — Couturier is making a big impact in Philadelphia.

Through four games, Couturier has four points and has yet to be on the ice for a 5v5 goal against. Every advanced metric is through the roof as he has primarily centered a line with Owen Tippett and Cam Atkinson. There has been no grace period for Couturier, who is averaging more than 20 minutes per game and drawing tough assignments. Against the Oilers on Thursday, his line went head-to-head with Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Evander Kane and outscored them.

It's easy to forget because Couturier has missed so much time and nobody knew how he would return, but he is a legitimate No. 1 center in this league. In the four seasons prior to his back surgery, the 6-foot-4 pivot played 276 games, had 252 points, averaged 20:56 per game and won 56.6% of his faceoffs, along with being a positive possession player and in the plus on expected goals in each of those seasons.

A top-line center is one of the hardest things to find and Couturier is a stud across the board. Getting him back and healthy has suddenly made the Flyers a more competitive team. It's a great story and an even better development for the Flyers.

The hot new power-play craze

It was only a few seasons ago that every NHL team unofficially ran a 1-3-1 power-play formation.

After a decade of teams getting victimized by Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos one-timers in this formation, everyone was trying to emulate it in some capacity. If teams weren’t setting up one-timers, they were working a play with the bumper to create some sort of tip or play through the half wall.

If the beginning of this season is any indication, though, we are starting to see teams veer away from the 1-3-1, or at the very least, diversify their attack. Most teams have some sort of 1-3-1 base formation but they will mix up the looks they are creating and the formation they are in.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have been running a 1-3-1 for years now, but look at the alignment as Nylander scores this one-timer goal. Two players at the top and three almost along the goal line.

Matthews has scored twice on the goal line in man advantage situations.

The Rangers are another team that generally sets up in a 1-3-1, but look how they shift around from that formation to having two players up top and multiple bodies in front of the net as this power play progresses. It eventually leads to a wide open shot from the point with so much traffic in front the puck deflects in:

Against the Ducks on Thursday, the Dallas Stars similarly had two guys playing pitch and catch up top, leading to a beautiful redirection goal:

This is becoming a bit more common again. Rather than teams just looking for the one timer on the half-wall, they are pulling a second player high to open up short passes and two prime shooting threats at the top, with lots of bodies in front, leading to a different type of power-play attack.

Ovechkin weighed down in pursuit of Gretzky's record

One of the biggest ongoing stories in the league is Ovechkin's push to become the NHL's all-time goals leader.

So far this season, Ovechkin hasn’t added to his totals but it’s far too early to overreact. Last season, he also went scoreless through his first three games and finished with 42 goals. His longest drought to start a season was four games in 2012-13, and he led the league in goals that season.

But there are at least a few concerns.

He did go two consecutive games without a shot on goal for the first time in his career (side note: it's wild that Ray Bourque has the record for most consecutive games with a shot on goal). It hasn't been for a lack of trying, as Ovechkin had four attempts in one game and five in another. Seven of those attempts were blocked and two missed the net, so he’s not exactly getting completely shut down. But it’s harder to get shots off when the team around you struggles, and the Capitals are bottom five in 5v5 possession and expected goals.

Again, it’s been three games, but they haven’t had the puck much and they haven’t been able to create high volume when they do have it. The Capitals are one of the oldest teams in the league with a rookie coach and they finished 25th last season. Washington wasn't expected to be a force this season, but if the talent on the team is deteriorating, including a now 38-year-old Ovechkin, it’s going to make it all the more difficult for him to get those final 73 goals for the record.

The world championship bump?

The world championships can often be glossed over, and for good reason given the NHL playoffs are happening at the same time. It’s a good tournament to keep an eye on, though. It’s where Brian Burke famously decided to draft the Sedin twins and where players who may have had a down year get to rebuild some confidence, like Adam Henrique did when he captained Canada to a gold medal in 2021.

One player who really put himself on the map this year was Buffalo Sabres' JJ Peterka, who was named forward of the tournament after putting up 12 points in 10 games and leading Germany to the gold medal game, where they lost to Canada. So far, he’s not off to a blazing start but he has two goals in four games after scoring all of 12 last season in 77 games. His two goals have been from distance and he has ripped both. The most impressive one came against Calgary:

That is a special shot and goal, as he cradles the pass on his forehand before turning his body to get enough torque on his shot to go far side high. It’s an incredibly difficult shot to make.

He’s still just 21 and his ice time is modest at just under 14 minutes per game, which is not nearly enough to put up notable production. That's in part because he needs to work on his defensive game to earn more minutes, but the flashes are there and the talent is evident.

Other players who had notable tournaments include MacKenzie Weegar, who is playing two minutes more per game so far this season, Scott Laughton, who has three points in his first four games, Sammy Blais, who is second in Blues scoring (which isn’t saying much), and Leo Carlsson, who scored in his first NHL game. To be fair, players like Dominik Kubalik, who was second in tournament scoring, has yet to produce a point this season and Connor Garland is still on the outs in Vancouver. Speaking of which…

The All Salary Cap Casualty Team

We have talked a lot about how the salary cap is squeezing out quality players at prices that are hard to believe.

The Predators retained half of Ryan Johansen’s salary and got nothing in return just to move his contract. The Panthers traded away Anthony Duclair for a depth player and a fifth-round pick. Rielly Smith was moved for a third-round pick after a 56-point season and strong playoff ending in a Stanley Cup. Kailer Yamamoto and Klim Kostin were dealt for future considerations. Taylor Hall was acquired with depth players, while veterans like Kevin Hayes and Patrick Maroon were had for late-round picks.

We’re almost at the point where we can create an All Salary Cap Casualty Team. Sam Lafferty was moved for a fifth-round pick before the season began, the Vancouver Canucks are trying to deal Connor Garland and are willing to retain a good chunk of his contract to do so, and Kevin Labanc is in a strange holding pattern with the Sharks that seemingly almost culminated in him going on waivers.

That's nearly an entire forward group of actual NHL players being given away at this point. What’s notably absent here, though? No defensemen or goalies. It's much more difficult to find any sort of quality at those positions and teams aren't typically inclined to give them away unless value is coming back in return. Forwards, even for a premium position like center, is apparently expendable to teams when the cap hit doesn’t fit, and the casualties are adding up.