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September 21, 2023

Sean Couturier is finally healthy, ready to skate again for rebuilding Flyers

Sean Couturier says he's fully healthy after lingering back issues kept him away from the Flyers for a year and a half.

Flyers NHL
Flyers-Canucks-Sean-Couturier-4-Kate-Frese_101521-175.jpg Kate Frese/For PhillyVoice

Flyers forward Sean Couturier hasn't skated in an NHL game since December 2021.

Just like last year, the first day of training camp was John Tortorella skating the Flyers into the ground.

Lap after lap after lap, with legs getting heavier and backs more hunched over with every stride. But this time, finally, Sean Couturier was out there with the rest of them.

And he held up.

The 30-year old streaked across the ice with visible power in his stride, and as Thursday morning's first group was tiring out deeper into the session, he was still going.

After two back surgeries and what will be a year and a half break between NHL games, it's impossible to tell what kind of player Couturier will be until the puck officially drops on the 2023-24 season.

But on Day 1 over at the Flyers Training Center in Voorhees, he looked good, or more importantly in the context of a Tortorella-run camp, he survived.

"I feel great, my day's over!" Couturier exclaimed with a big smile and a laugh from those in the media room after.

But there's still a ways to go, and in the big picture of a clearly-stated Flyers rebuild, a lot to figure out.

Before his back issues, Couturier was the Flyers' top-line center and heralded as one of the best shutdown forwards in the league.

At his peak, he was putting up points, taking on any and every assignment, and sticking to – more impressively often containing – the Sidney Crosbys and Evgeni Malkins of the world.

But coming out of the 2020 COVID bubble, bad luck struck the Flyers from just about every possible angle.

Injuries piled up at an almost ridiculous rate, hitting Couturier especially, all while a team that was at one point playing the NHL's best hockey, before the coronavirus pandemic shut the world down, rapidly fell apart in the two seasons that followed.

By December 18, 2021, the Flyers were struggling to stay afloat and Couturier had, unknowingly, just played his last game for a significant amount of time. A couple of months later in February 2022, Couturier had surgery to address a back issue that shut him down for the remainder of the season, former coach Alain Vigneault had been fired and replaced by Mike Yeo in the interim, Claude Giroux was traded away, the Flyers missed the playoffs, and the overall outlook of the team had soured.

Tortorella was hired that summer, and Couturier was optimistic about his health and the prospect of a fresh start with that first day of camp under a new head coach. But when the day arrived, he wasn't there, leaving former general manager Chuck Fletcher to explain that he was out seeking second opinions from doctors and specialists over back issues that had resurfaced after the initial surgery.

He was out again, and while he and the Flyers did everything they could to avoid going back under the knife in the additional months that passed, there was eventually no other option. Couturier underwent back revision surgery in late October, getting sidelined even longer and for eventually the entire 2022-23 season after Tortorella, current GM Danny Brière, and the Flyers' medical staff decided to shelve efforts for a late return.

All the while, the organization was going nowhere with what it had and finally shifted focus into a full-on rebuild.

So now, all these months later, it's a different team that Couturier is coming back to, and though finally cleared and fully healthy, there is a fair amount of speculation and concern that this could also be a different Couturier that is coming back.

"They have their reasons to question or doubt," Couturier said. "But I know what I'm capable of, the kind of person I am, the character that I have. Not only to them, but to myself, I wanna prove that I'm able to be the player I was, if not better. So that's always a little extra motivation when you hear some doubters."

But there's still a ways to go.

Day 1 of camp on Thursday was all skating to set a tone and a standard. There wasn't a puck to be seen.

Drills and scrimmages will be held on Friday, then, presumably, Couturier will play in the Flyers' first preseason game against the Devils up in Newark on Monday night to start the build up to the season opener at Columbus on October 12.

Couturier doesn't know how many preseason games he'll actually play in, and Tortorella wasn't about to divulge that information either, but he wants it to be as much as he can.

"It's one thing to be hurt for a long period of time," Couturier said. "But to not actually play hockey for a year and a half in-game, it's different. It's not like practice or anything. So for me, I want to play as many games as I can. Doesn't matter if it's away, home, travel, but that's gonna be up to the management to see how they handle it."

"Not gonna overthink it," Tortorella said of how the Flyers will manage the workload of both Couturier and Cam Atkinson, who is also returning from a missed season due to a neck injury. "They put in a lot of work prior to us just starting, so they're ready to go. They're gonna go to business just like everyone else does. We're not gonna overthink that."

Once Couturier is finally back out there, it's also going to be on him to clear the mental hurdle of being back in game action, because after all, it's been a while since he's been hit.

"Yeah, not gonna lie, mentally, that's gonna be the big thing to get over," Couturier said. "Just play that first game, get hit, get crushed on the boards and see how it feels. That's what I kind of want, but everyone's confident that everything's gonna be okay – doctors, trainers – so I'm not too worried. But obviously just to feel it and actually go through it, that'll probably feel better and clear my mind, that's for sure."

And then there's the matter of where he fits.

Again, it's been a long time that Couturier has been away and it won't be clear for a while whether he can get back to the Selke-caliber defensive center he once was.

He'll be a crucial veteran presence for an increasingly younger team in the locker room, for sure, but say he goes in and immediately starts playing like a No. 1 center again – or even doesn't – what happens then? What does that mean for the Flyers' trajectory?

"I'm OK with the rebuild process of what we're going through," Couturier said. "Obviously, I'm 30, I haven't really won anything, so I'm anxious to start winning, and making long playoff runs, and win the Cup, but this is part of the process.

"I think we're gonna – as players, coaches, I think we can determine how fast this rebuild can be. I think a lot of people think a rebuild is 3,4,5 years, but take a year or two and we can be right back there. I think that's gonna be the goal. There's not too many expectations, and I think we can kind of use that as motivation and maybe surprise a lot of people."

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