Schenn, Couturier remain building blocks

Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier haven't produced big numbers yet, but there's reason for hope. USA TODAY Sports

In identifying all the problems piling up for the reeling Philadelphia Flyers, the dramatic trades that sent Jeff Carter and Mike Richards away are getting lumped in with other mistakes made by management.

And the optics of those deals aren't good right now. Carter and Richards have gone on to win a Stanley Cup with the Kings, and are a big reason Los Angeles is expected to contend for another championship this season.

But one NHL scout, after recently watching two of the biggest pieces GM Paul Holmgren got back in those deals, warned against forming judgment too soon.

"It's still really early to evaluate," he said.

As Flyers fans look for any sign of good news in the midst of the Philadelphia free fall during a season that was supposed to include a return to the playoffs, they can take solace in the notion that people around the league continue to see progress in both Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier.

"I'm a fan of both of them," said one NHL team executive. "The question on both of them really at the end of the day is how much offense is either one going to produce?"

First, a refresher.

On the Thursday before the 2011 draft, Richards was traded to the Kings for Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and a 2012 second-round draft pick that was eventually used to acquire Nicklas Grossmann. Dallas used that pick to select Maine's Devin Shore.

Carter was traded to the Blue Jackets for Jakub Voracek and first- and third-round picks in the 2011 draft. The draft picks resulted in the addition of Couturier and Nick Cousins to the Flyers organization.

According to ESPN Insider prospect expert Corey Pronman, Cousins is an above-average prospect who plays with feistiness and is a "typical small, high-skill puck possession forward."

Here's the NHL production of the players since the trade:

The Flyers are still getting cap relief from that trade, despite raises for Simmonds and Voracek. Couturier's salary jumps from $925,000 to $1,750,000 next season through 2015-16. Schenn is a restricted free agent following this season after talks fell through this summer.

"They were just more exploratory talks and didn't get very far," said Schenn's agent Craig Oster on Wednesday evening. "It's something we all agreed to park aside and revisit after the season."

And cap relief was part of the motivation back in 2011, specifically to clear room for Ilya Bryzgalov. If he continued to perform as one of the top five goalies in the NHL after signing in Philly, the Flyers are a playoff team, and none of this is being over-analyzed.

But now, like some suspected on the day the contract was signed, we know the Bryzgalov deal was not a great idea. The question has shifted to this: Can Schenn and Couturier redeem the rest of the moves of that offseason?

Already in Craig Berube's tenure as Flyers head coach, we've seen some difference in how both players are being used, although part of that is motivated by injuries.

Under Peter Laviolette, Couturier averaged 14:21 of ice time per game. That number has increased to 18:16 under Berube. The power-play time is even more dramatic for Couturier. Here's a look at power-play ice time of both players this season:

The Couturier jump in power-play ice time is dramatic, although the results aren't there yet. He's still looking for his first goal of the season, but his new coach is confident that Couturier has the skill set to contribute right now on an NHL power play.

"He can do that. He's an all-around player," Berube said, noting that injuries to Vincent Lecavalier and Scott Hartnell play a part in that decision. "We use him more in a defensive role. That doesn't mean he can't score goals either."

Is that an evolution Berube sees happening over the course of this season?

"Definitely," Berube said.

Couturier has been impressive as a defensive player since he broke into the league, and continues to make strides in other parts of his game. His faceoff percentage is at 51.9 percent this season after finishing last season at 43.9 percent. It's an area of his game he's focused on improving.

"It's been pretty strong lately. It's something center men need to be good at if you want to play in key situations," Couturier said. "For sure, I've been working on it and there's still a place for improvement as well."

While Couturier's growth will come on the offensive side of the game, Schenn continues to develop on both ends of the ice. He came up through the Kings system and also played for Terry Murray in the AHL so there has been a lot of work with the offensively gifted Schenn to round out his game defensively.

Murray still remembers Schenn getting an emergency call-up to play for the Kings in the 2009-10 season during a game in Vancouver. His puck skills stood out even then.

"I thought he held his own very well considering his circumstances," Murray said when we chatted this week. "He wanted the puck all the time. That's the one thing Brayden needs to pay attention to. Sometimes you chase the puck too much in the offensive zone."

In a league in which many games are decided by one goal, to be a high-end center you have to be a player a coach trusts in tight situations anywhere on the ice. That's still an area of growth for Schenn, whose offensive skills are apparent. He currently leads the Flyers with four points in seven games, and is getting more time at center with Lecavalier out. Saturday's game in Detroit was his first full game at center this season, and Berube was pleased with the way he moved, created chances and was responsible defensively.

Murray said the intricacies of being a well-rounded two-way NHL center are definitely something that can be taught, and Schenn has worked hard to learn those intricacies. It remains a process.

"It's being in the right place. There's anticipation. There's a skill to playing without the puck," Murray said "That goes right back on our laps [as coaches]. With all the tools we have in the game today, the video and isolation on the players, it's about follow-up. It's important that we're putting our arm around the player, making a quiet time for them the next day and bring them in to point these things out."

One exec pointed out that Couturier and Schenn are different players coming from different places, but they're both developing into guys who will ultimately fill similar roles long-term, likely at No. 2 center.

That's precisely how one Western Conference scout projected Schenn. 
 "In my opinion, Schenn projects as a good No. 2 center. He'll play in the NHL a long time. With [Claude] Giroux there, that's pretty good," the scout said.

So do they eventually become redundant on the Flyers? Possibly, but at the very least, it'll give Philadelphia flexibility moving forward if that happens. Or the center position eventually develops into an area of strength of the Flyers, even if it's not quite there yet.

Couturier is just 20 years old. Schenn is 22. Their youth and development reveals one of the flaws in the plan to try to win now when the Bryzgalov gamble didn't work.

The two best young players on the roster still might be a couple of seasons away from reaching their peak performance, yet the Flyers were spending this summer on veterans like the team was on the verge of winning now. It has become apparent that's not the case.

Despite that, both young players remain on a path to become the players the Flyers hoped when they added them to the organization.

"People see a guy like [Tomas] Hertl scoring and want all these guys to contribute right away but it's a long season. It's a grind," said the scout. "They're going to be strong down the middle for a long time with those two players. It's still really early to evaluate them right now."