While the prospect of being without star center Sean Couturier for three to four more months due to a second back surgery might be disappointing, the Flyers still believe there’s a silver lining.
“At least we have some clarity on a return-to-play timeline,’’ said general manager Chuck Fletcher about Couturier’s ongoing back problems during an impromptu press briefing at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday morning.
Fletcher was referring to all the uncertainty surrounding Couturier’s status since he underwent the first back operation this past February.
The GM reiterated a second “back revision surgery’’ was deemed necessary because Couturier has continued to experience symptoms and discomfort throughout the summer and into the start of this season.
“Speaking with several specialists, it became apparent that surgery was the only way to hopefully resolve this,’’ Fletcher said. “That’s the one positive out of this. There’s been so much uncertainty. I remember sitting at the (NHL) draft in Montreal (in July), reading the medical report and thinking he shouldn’t be at this place.
“Hopefully for Sean there’s some release and he feels better. Ultimately we’re hopeful he can come back and play.’’
Couturier underwent the follow-up procedure on Thursday at the Carrell Clinic in Dallas, Texas. The surgical team was headed by Dr. Andrew B. Dossett.
“For Sean it’s been a long road, even back to June and July,’’ Fletcher said. “He felt tightness, he felt some nerve irritation at the time. He was told to continue to train. He felt better as the summer went along and then prior to camp.
“Then symptoms seemed to get a little bit worse so we pulled him back. At that point we tried to treat it non-surgically, he got an epidural, it brought instant relief. For a couple weekes he felt great, really the best he had felt in a long time. And then that seemed to wear off.’’
Clearly, rest and rehabilitation were not going to solve the issue. There was hope at the start of training camp when Couturier started to skate in earnest but that optimism quickly disappeared.
“After speaking with a few different specialists, it was decided to go back in and repair,’’ Fletcher said. “The symptoms had been going on and the medical group said this shouldn’t be happening this far after the initial surgery.’’
Asked if there was a particular time when Couturier realized he couldn’t deal with the problem any longer, Fletcher couldn’t pinpoint a turning point.
“I don’t know if there was any one incident, it’s just sort of a continuation,’’ Fletcher explained. “There have been some good days, some good weeks and then bad days and bad weeks. It just wasn’t right to where he should be in the return-to-play process.’’
Fletcher said that with these types of back surgeries there’s about a 10 percent chance they won’t be a complete success. There’s no way of knowing if Couturier simply fits into that category or perhaps there was a setback due to re-injury.
“Was there something that exacerbated things in the summer? I don’t know,’’ Fletcher said. “It’s been a frustrating process but again I think we finally have some clarity and we’re going to get Sean to a better place.’’
Couturier, a Phoenix, Arizona native who grew up in Canada, has been probably the Flyers’ best player over the past few years. He won the Frank J. Selke Trophy for the NHL’s best defensive forward a few years back. At 29 and under contract for the next eight seasons, the future appeared bright.
Where things go from here remains to be seen.
“I haven’t spoken to Dr. Dossett, our medical group has,’’ Fletcher said. “I think he’s confident that this will really help Sean.’’
Meanwhile, the Flyers have to think about how they’re going to replace Couturier, who’s been the team’s No. 1 center for a number of seasons.
Kevin Hayes has been skating in that spot for the time being. Fletcher does have cap space and a number of talented prospects which could be used in a trade.
“We have plenty of (long-term injury) cap space right now,’’ Fletcher agreed, nothing that defenseman Ryan Ellis and center Patrick Brown will continue to miss a considerable amount of time. We’ve claimed Kieffer Bellows. . .we’ll just have to see.
“Right now we’ll probably let things play out. It’s not easy to replace Sean Couturier. Again, the hope is that in three or four months he will be back.’’
Couturier plans to remain in Texas through the weekend before returning home.
Coach John Tortorella may have had an inkling this day was coming. It might have been no mere coincidence forward Kieffer Bellows was claimed off waivers from the Islanders the other day.
“That’s the greatest thing about it, now you know,’’ he said. “That’s the greatest thing about it, I won’t get asked about it everyday. So let’s move on. I put a lineup together and we go and try to win a hockey game.’’
>Van Riemsdyk out six weeks
James van Riemsdyk also underwent surgery. His came on Friday to repair a broken left index finger. The surgery was performed by Dr. Robert K. Hotchkiss at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. He’s expected to be out about six weeks.
>Atkinson making progress
Fletcher said Cam Atkinson, who has yet to play this season due to an upper-body injury, is making progress but it’s still a week-to-week proposition.
“It’s been frustrating for him,’’ Fletcher said. “Nobody wants to play more than Cam.’’