Couturier focused on making Canada’s juniors


ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Sean Couturier’s name has already been mentioned as a potential first overall pick in the 2011 NHL draft, but the 18-year-old centre doesn’t want to think that far ahead just yet.

The American-born, Bathurst, N.B.-raised son of former Los Angeles Kings left-winger Sylvain Couturier is too busy trying to make Canada’s team for the next world junior hockey championship in December in Buffalo, N.Y.

"It’s pretty fun to be up there, but I try not to think about it," Couturier said Thursday on Day 2 of the Canadian junior team development camp at Mile One Centre. "There’s still a whole season to play.

"We’ll see what happens in June next year."

Couturier and Saint John Sea Dogs defenceman Nathan Beaulieu are the only 18-year-old players in the 46-man camp who are eligible for the 2011 draft.

The only other undrafted player is Vancouver Giants defenceman Neil Manning, who was passed over by the 30 NHL clubs in June in Los Angeles.

Couturier won the Jean Beliveau Trophy as the scoring champion of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with the Drummondville Voltigeurs last season with 41 goals and 55 assists in 68 games.

The six-foot-three forward was also plus-62 and has drawn rave reviews for consistent two-way play that is sometimes to compared to either of the NHL’s Staal brothers, Carolina’s Eric or Pittsburgh’s Jordan — particularly for his ability to shut down opposing centres.

"It’s important for me to play a good defensive game," he said. "That’s where all my offence starts — getting the puck out and going on attack.

"You want to be that guy at the end of the game that you can count on defensively to shut down and not get scored on. You always want to be in those key moments."

It’s what caught the eye of Hockey Canada officials, starting with the junior squad’s head scout Al Murray.

"He played for us last summer at the (under-18) Ivan Hlinka tournament and took on a role as a shut-down centre playing against the best players from all the other countries," said Murray. "He’s shown us at the international level, on the big ice surface, that he can skate and play defensively.

"He brings that to the Quebec league as well as being the leading scorer in the league, so I don’t think there’s anything that Sean hasn’t been able to do at the junior level. He’s been on our radar for a number of years. The next transition is that it’s time to come to the world juniors."

It has always been tough for so-called "underage" players to make the national team. Last year, Taylor Hall of the Windsor Spitfires made it and then was drafted first overall by the Edmonton Oilers, but Tyler Seguin of the Plymouth Whalers, who ended up being picked second overall by the Boston Bruins, didn’t make the 2010 junior squad.

Seguin has dazzled at this year’s summer camp, but he is likely to be playing in Boston next season.

For Couturier, much will depend on whether he continues to dominate the QMJHL. The summer camp is for making good first impressions on head coach Dave Cameron and his staff. The next step is to earn an invitation to the team selection camp in December, from which the 22-man team will be named.

It is too soon to assess his chances of making the team, but Murray said he has the right temperament to excel in a two-week tournament like the world juniors.

"He’s a very low-maintenance player," Murray said. "He knows what the game’s about at both ends of the rink and shows it consistently.

"Those players are important to have. We need guys that compete shift after shift, game after game. It’s not a long season of 70 games where a guy can afford to take a game off here and there."

Couturier was born in 1992 in Phoenix, Ariz., where his father was playing for the Roadrunners of the defunct IHL. Sylvain Couturier had played 33 NHL games for the Kings, who drafted him in the second round in 1986, but spent most of his career in the minors and in Europe.

He retired after a season in the Quebec senior league in 2000-01 and is now general manager of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan.

Sean Couturier dominated midget hockey in New Brunswick and, after an unsuccessful attempt to get into Quebec’s midget-AAA league, played a season with the Notre Dame Hounds in Saskatchewan before being drafted second overall by Drummondville.

The Voltigeurs won the QMJHL championship and went to the Memorial Cup tournament in his first season, which he counts as a key moment in his development.

"The Memorial Cup gave me a lot of experience and I matured from that," he said. "And playing in the under-18 gave me a huge boost of confidence going into last season, so from there it just kept going all year."

In camp, he has been placed on a line with Louis Leblanc, a 2009 first-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens who recently left Harvard to join the Verdun Juniors of the QMJHL. Leblanc was also impressed by his young linemate.

"We seem to click out there — the passes are on the tape," said Leblanc. "He protects the puck and sees the ice really well. He’s a good overall package."

The six-foot-three Beaulieu, from Strathroy, Ont., is among four Sea Dogs expected to be watched closely by scouts this season, along with Jonathan Huberdeau, Zach Phillips and Tomas Jurco. His teammate, defenceman Simon Despres, a 2009 Pittsburgh first-rounder, is also in camp.

"Another two-way player," Murray said of Beaulieu. "He plays power play and the penalty kill on his junior team at a young age.

"He’s a go-to guy on his team and was probably one of the most improved players in the Q last year."

Murray feels NHL teams may have overlooked a hidden gem in Manning, a five-foot-11 rearguard from Nanaimo, B.C.

"Every NHL team has at least one five-foot-10 to six-foot defencemen who is very competitive, very smart, who can transition the puck quickly, get back and get pucks that are dumped in and turn them around," said Murray. "He was an impact player in Vancouver."

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