This isn't a popular sentiment, but it doesn't matter how good Sean Couturier looks in the first nine games; he should be returned to Drummondville of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
After putting up 96 points in back-to-back years in the Q before the age of 18, it has often been said that Couturier has nothing left to prove in Juniors. That's almost certainly true, since he can't do much else to establish himself as a future NHL player.
But that isn't enough of a reason to keep Couturier in the NHL this year. He may not have anything left to prove in the Q, but he certainly has things to improve about his game. His skating, for one thing, can continue to improve. The same is true of his work ethic, his intelligence, his strength, and his confidence. None of that is to say Couturier is lacking in those areas, as he has already shown he can handle NHL competition.
Instead, it reflects the fact that he's young, he has a lot to learn, and he has a really high ceiling. He can continue to get better in all areas of his game for years to come.
Sure, it would be great if Couturier could go to the AHL and work on his game against stronger competition with constant supervision from Flyers' trainers, coaches, players, scouts, and management. That would be fantastic, but it's not how the NHL operates.
So that leaves two options: either he returns to Drummondville or he remains with the Flyers.
So far, Couturier has shown that he can play in the NHL. But what he hasn't done is show that he possesses an invaluable or unique skill that the Flyers don't already possess.
Before Couturier plays his 10th NHL game - thus counting as his first year of the entry-level contract - he needs to demonstrate that he will give the Flyers better value this year - at age 18 - than he will at age 21. If Couturier plays 9 NHL games or fewer this year, his contract will slide a year, officially beginning next season and running for three years.
Since he would be signed to the same cap hit at age 21 if he were returned before ten games, the choice is between an 18-year old Couturier or a 21-year old Couturier for the same price. On weaker teams, this might be a question. On the Flyers, it is clear which player provides better value.
With Brayden Schenn in the lineup for the first time this season last night, Couturier was dropped to the fourth line. Unless Couturier shifts to wing and forces Jakub Voracek, Scott Hartnell or someone else out of the top-9, it is pointless to have Couturier burn a year of his ELC playing ten minutes per game with Jody Shelley on his wing half the time.
While Couturier's penalty killing is helpful - even impressive - it isn't a reason to keep him in the NHL either. Peter Laviolette has been using Couturier, Matt Read, Andreas Nodl, and Maxime Talbot on the PK, but Couturier could easily concede those minutes to Claude Giroux, Blair Betts, or Ben Holmstrom. There are plenty of guys in this organization who can kill penalties, and most can do it for about half as much as Couturier costs.
It would be nice for Couturier to graduate from Juniors to a more challenging league, as it can only lead to an improved player. But the rules don't let him play in the AHL and the Flyers don't need him in the NHL. Next year, when Jaromir Jagr becomes a UFA, the Flyers will have a top-9 spot open for Couturier, one that he will surely grasp.
With the way the Flyers are currently constructed, Couturier is simply a luxury to have around. Of course, the Flyers could make a trade to find a top-9 spot for Couturier (or even just bench someone), opening up more ice time for him. Even then, 18 year old skaters don't play tough minutes in the NHL and they don't often find success otherwise.
Maybe Couturier is the exception, but carrying another center who either isn't needed in the top-9 or who needs to be protected from other teams' top-9s is an unnecessary risk to take. Couple that with the fact that the Flyers would then have three rookies in their top-9 - Couturier, Schenn, and Read - all of whom would be required to step up and contribute in all areas of the game for 82 games, and that is a lot to ask.
The choice really comes down to:
Do you pay $1.375 million for a fourth-line center this year or $1.375 million for a 21-year old Couturier the same year Claude Giroux, Brayden Schenn, Andrej Meszaros, and more will be without a contract?
With those players expected to cost substantially more than they do right now, having Couturier locked up for less than one and a half million dollars when entering negotiations with those players would be of huge value that off-season.
Showing a little patience - and proper asset management - now will prove to be a bargain in three years. Hopefully the Flyers think that far ahead.