March 14, 2023
For the first time in a long, long time, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel for Sean Couturier.
The Flyers center, who hasn't played in well over a year now because of persisting back issues, finally took the ice with the rest of the team Tuesday out in Voorhees for the morning skate – albeit in a yellow non-contact jersey.
But hey, it's a step, and a huge one toward the prospects of returning before the end of the season, a goal that, for his sake, he hopes he reaches.
"Especially for me, if I wait 'til next year, it's gonna be almost two years I haven't played an NHL game, which is not ideal," said Couturier, in his first meeting with the media in months also. "I'm not getting any younger either. I just wanna get a feel of the game and knowing that, going into the summer, I know what I have to do to be back at the level I need to be."
Couturier's back issues began in the middle of last season as the Flyers were completely bottoming out. He skated in 29 games before falling out of the lineup in mid-December, then was shut down for good on February 11 to undergo surgery.
He did the rehab and reported to Voorhees early ahead of training camp in September, optimistic that those issues were fully behind him. But reports then surfaced that he re-injured his back again and on the first day of camp, he wasn't there, instead out seeking second opinions from doctors on tightness and nerve irritation he was experiencing.
In October, Couturier had back revision surgery and was expected out another 3-4 months, leaving a giant hole at the top of the lineup and, at age 30, uncertainty over his long-term health. The setback was brutal, being away from the team as they were struggling didn't help either, but he started skating by himself again the past couple of weeks and has been steadily ramping up.
Coots! There he is. #FueledByPhilly pic.twitter.com/aaYWyk8S4f— Philadelphia Flyers (@NHLFlyers) March 14, 2023
The back, he said, feels good, "day and night" compared to how he felt coming back from the original surgery, and he's comfortable skating, passing, and shooting again. But that's all been from working by himself. The next step is getting back into more game-like situations, and he's eyeing Thursday morning's practice for that.
If he can skate then and keep up, hopefully, he said, things snowball from there and it ends up at a couple games played before this season is all said and done.
"I'm pushing as hard as I can right now," Couturier said. "I'm trying to get back this year and get some games in, so it's been a couple weeks where I've been ramping up and I feel like...it's almost like I had a full summer of training at this point and I'm getting anxious for training camp. I know there's only a month left in the season, but I'd definitely like to get a couple games in."
And if it comes to that, head coach John Tortorella said he'll talk to him about getting back in the lineup, but outright stated that his focus for Couturier is already on to next year.
"My feeling is...If he plays, for me, it's not that important that he plays games, but I'm not him either," he said. "He's losing his mind. For his sanity and for him to feel part of it maybe before he leaves here, I've gotta take that into consideration if it comes to that."
Prior to his back issues, Couturier was one of the league's best two-way centers, renowned for his defensive capabilities with offensive production that finally matched once former captain Claude Giroux was put on his wing.
But his extended absence, combined with the Flyers as a whole falling apart, put all of that in the rearview. He'll likely need time to build back up once he does finally return, and after two back surgeries, there's no guarantee that he'll ever fully be back to the player he was either.
In addition, he'll be rejoining a Flyers team that has accepted the fact that it needs to rebuild. It wasn't what he had in mind when he signed an 8-year, $62 million contract extension that would carry him into his late 30s, but it's the hand that's been dealt.
"That's the business of the NHL," Couturier said. "Things can go one way or the other pretty quick in this league. Being part of a rebuild is not what you want, but I think it's the right thing to do in the situation we're at, the time that we're at, and with all the injuries we've had and everything, it's kind of something that we have to do.
"I'll do my best to be around and lead the right way and get this team back on track as quick as possible."
But for now, the immediate priority is working his way back to the ice.
"Just feeling good about yourself that your back being a hockey player and not just rehabbing," he said. "I've done that enough, I feel, in the last couple months, year and a half."
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