Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Philadelphia Flyers were two distinctly different hockey clubs based on the presence or absence of a single player: Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman Mark Howe. In the last three years of his Flyers career, struggling with a chronic bad back and other injury issues, Howe was out of the lineup more than he was able to play. He played 101 games and missed 140.
When Howe was able to play, though, the team was at least competitive, posting a 49-45-7 record. Howe was a combined plus-42 at even strength for non-playoff teams. By comparison, the 140 games that Howe missed, the Flyers were a combined 46-68-26.
Beyond the massive winning percentage differential, take note that the team actually won three fewer games without in 39 more tries than they had with him in the lineup.
In the first four years of Eric Lindros' career — when annual knee injuries and not concussions were the biggest concern — the Flyers had a similar disparity between their chances of winning when their biggest threat was in the lineup or when he was missing. However, as the Flyers built stronger and stronger depth around their nucleus, the effect lessened annually and the team was better able to withstand the stretches when Lindros went down.
The 2015-16 Flyers can relate, although they are reluctant to admit just how much of difference one player — two-way stalwart center Sean Couturier — has meant to the lineup as he has seemingly reached his breakthrough season where he has started to become more of an offensive threat in addition to being a top-end shutdown forward.
Entering their Feb. 11 game against the Buffalo Sabres, the Flyers hold a 2-8-2 record without Couturier. With him in the lineup, they are 21-12-7.
Couturier will miss the rest of the month of February with a lower-body injury. By necessity and to steer clear of excuse-making, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall and head coach Dave Hakstol have denied that a single player has that much of an overall effect on their ability to win, while at the same time acknowledging that it requires multiple supporting cast players to step up an deliver various pieces of what Couturier individually brings to the team.
"It’s a really small sample size," Hextall argued. "Yeah you look at it and go he’s a big part of our team. We all knew that. Would we like him back tomorrow? Yeah. It would be terrific. But it’s not going to happen. So we’re going to go with what we’ve got. And we need to find ways to win games.
"I think if you look at the weekend [games against the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals], OK, those are losses without Coots. And we played damn good. And probably deserved to win both those games. So we can win without Sean Couturier and we need to. That’s the point in the season we’re at and we need to find ways to win games.’"
It is true that the Flyers played well overall in both the Rangers and Capitals games. They also played well without Couturier in the first period of their recent games against the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, they ultimately lost all three games after playing with early (and, in the case of the Rangers game, late) leads. When push came to shove, they sorely missed Couturier's ability to provide stabilizing shifts that cool down other teams' momentum or, even better, generate puck-possessing momentum for Philadelphia.
According to BehindtheNet.ca data, Couturier has played against the toughest quality of competition of any forward in the NHL this season (he's third highest when defensemen are included). Even so, his puck possession analytics are very strong, meaning that he typically gets the better of his even-strength matchups against other teams' top lines. The topper: Among all Flyers players, only defenseman Nick Schultz has started a lower percentage of even-strength shifts outside the offensive zone than the 41.1 percent of Couturier's shifts that start with the puck in the offensive zone.
These stats are nothing new for Couturier. What is new is that he's finally started to come into his own offensively as well as defensively. After a very slow start in terms of point production but playing like he was on the brink of a breakthrough, Couturier has racked up 16 points in his last 16 games. Over his last 23 games, Couturier has posted 20 points — eight goals and 13 assists.
In today's NHL especially, that is an excellent stretch of production from a second-line center over a sample size of a quarter-season's worth of games. Offensively, Couturier is either the Flyers fourth or fifth most important forward (depending on where one places him relative to frequent linemate and first power play unit regular Brayden Schenn). Defensively, Couturier is number one. In combination, that makes him very difficult to replace when he's out of the lineup; especially because the Flyers depth below him is quite thin in terms of bonafide two-way threats.
Bottom line: The record disparity with and without Couturier has not been a fluke of a small sample size. It's a pretty accurate reflection of where the team is with and without him as its second-line center.
Bill Meltzer is a columnist for Flyerdelphia. Follow him on Twitter @billmeltzer.