2013 In Review: Top 5 Disappointments in Philadelphia Sports

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5. Brayden Schenn & Sean Couturier’s Sophomore Slump

Of all the teams in the city entering their respective campaigns over the last season, the Flyers seemed like the most equipped to make a serious run at contention. After an inspiring first-round win over the rival Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2011-2012 playoffs, the Flyers were dealt a harsh dose of reality by a disciplined, experienced New Jersey Devils team as they ousted Philadelphia in five games. While the loss certainly stung, the performance of the team’s young players; most notably rookies Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn built a fever pitch of excitement about the team’s short and long-term prospects.

As the cornerstones of the Flyers’ franchise-altering trades of Jeff Carter & Mike Richards, the performances of the two young centers softened the blow of the fact that the two former Flyers had won a Stanley Cup for the Kings. Along with Claude Giroux, Schenn & Couturier rounded out what many thought was the premiere centermen corps in the NHL. Schenn’s physicality, aggression, and a deceptive scoring touch reminded many of Richards only in a larger frame. Meanwhile, Couturier’s elite defensive game paired with a rapidly improving offensive mindset made him one of the team’s most valuable assets regardless of age. His job on 2011-2012 MVP Evgeni Malkin in the team’s first round win over Pittsburgh would have been enough to launch him into the heart’s of fans of the Orange & Black right away. The fact that he managed to score a hat trick in the team’s wild game two win seemed to justify the expectation that Couturier could be the NHL’s next great two-way star.

With Schenn & Couturier holding down the team’s second and third line center positions, many felt the Flyers were far ahead of schedule considering the age of their team. It was even speculated that the Flyers were so high on their two young centers that they would not include them in a trade to acquire all-NHL defenseman Shea Weber in a trade during the 2012 offseason.

When it was announced that the NHL would be entering a lockout, various members of the team found locations to stay fresh as they waited for the work stoppage to end. Schenn and Couturier were sent to the Adirondack Phantoms, the Flyers AHL affiliate, and represented the local interest of Flyers fans as others went overseas and elsewhere.

Both players dominated the AHL like one would expect young, impactful NHL players to do. As the lockout drew to a close, common sense might have indicated that both players would be as well prepared to step into NHL action than anyone else given the similarities with the minor-league game. With Giroux and Danny Briere dominating in Germany and Schenn & Couturier holding court in the AHL, the excitement level surrounding the Flyers could not have been higher.

Sports fans in every city disregard the concept of the sophomore slump until they see it with their own players. Everyone expects the young players they saw perform so far beyond their years to continue to progress at the same clip they had the season prior. Unfortunately, much like all sports, hockey is impossible to predict when it comes to young players. For both Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier, the lockout-shortened season was one to forget.

While no Flyers player, with perhaps the exception of Jakub Voracek, is exempt from criticism regarding their play in 2013, there was nothing more disappointing than watching Schenn and Couturier struggle to make even the simplest of plays. The high-level skill and poised shown by both players the season prior had been replaced by a lack of awareness and a tentativeness more often displayed by rookies with little business playing for an NHL club.

Most discussions surrounding the two young players by midseason was which was more of a disappointment. Was it Schenn? The player whose strength and tenacity were made all the more impressive by his ability to perform on the highest stage were replaced by sloppy play, a look of confusion, and a penchant for untimely penalties. Or perhaps it was Couturier? The fresh-faced, dynamic, two-way force that had shut down one of the best players in the world had regressed to little more than a player without a role who had become a liability in most facets of the game. He had gone from a staggering +18 his rookie season to a troubling -8 in year two, making many question whether his defensive prowess had been a stroke of luck and advanced scouting had found holes in his game.

The two young center combined for just 41 points (12 goals, 29 assists) between the two of them and, paired with the up and down season of Claude Giroux, seriously put into question the team’s future up the middle. There was overwhelming speculation that GM Paul Holmgren had made a serious mistake not including the two in a trade for Weber, as they looked much more like rookies with a future of bouncing back and forth between the AHL & NHL than franchise cornerstones. Perhaps more so than any members of the Flyers, the end of the shortened 2012-2013 season could not have come soon enough. The Flyers would miss the playoffs for the second time in nearly two decades and many placed a substantial amount of blame on the inability for their two top young players to perform the way they had the year before, let alone progress.

Fortunately, many look at the notion of a ‘sophomore slump’ as a crossroads for young players. The truly talented, determined players will use their struggles as a wakeup call to ramp up their preparation and workload. Whereas those who let the slump get the best of them probably did not have the mental fortitude for the NHL anyway. After both players were involved in various offseason trade rumors (Schenn’s name still pops up from time to time in season), they were given a vote of confidence by being part of the team’s top 9 forward corps entering the 2013-2014 season.

Both players have bounced back nicely for the most part. Schenn has already scored 7 goals (one less than his 2012-2013 total in 10 less games) and is a solid +1 rating on the team’s second line. After many feared Couturier’s slump had seeped into this season, all it took was the young center to score his first goal to see just how good he can be. Couturier has already exceeded his 2012-2013 point total in 9 less games (7 goals, 10 assists), has seen a near-five minute jump in ice time, and is arguably the team’s best player in terms of playing all three zones. His line, along with Matt Read and Steve Downie, is constantly matched up against the opposition’s top scoring threat and, not only has he held his own against the likes of: Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and Eric Staal; but has shown a veteran-level confidence with the puck and is one of the most important players in coach Craig Berube’s new style of play.

It’s never easy to see young, promising talent disappoint the way that Schenn & Couturier did in 2012-2013. The two will have their names linked together for quite some time due to their involvement in the franchise-altering trades prior to the 2011-2012 season. Whether or not it is fair to put the type of pressure on two players of their age is irrelevant, as young players are contributing more and more. Fortunately, it appears the two have learned a great deal from their struggles and it is looking more likely that they will be the types of talents that persevere through the struggles rather than succumb.