If there’s one member of the Flyers’ “old guard” who figures to play a prominent role in the team’s rebuilding process, it’s Sean Couturier.
The 30-year-old center has been sidelined for most of the past two seasons with a back injury which has taken a pair of surgical operations to repair.
But now, with just a month left in the current season, the clouds are beginning to part for Couturier, who’s been skating a few weeks and, on Tuesday, took part in a pre-game morning skate at the Flyers Training Center in Voorhees, N.J.
Couturier smiled a lot during an interview after the workout.
The headline here: If all goes well, it’s Couturier’s intention to get into at least a handful of games on the remaining 16-game slate.
While the Flyers might be trying to get younger, it goes without saying Couturier fits squarely in new interim GM Daniel Briere’s plans for the upcoming years.
“It’s been awhile and I’m just happy to do some time with my teammates,” Couturier said. “It’s been going really well. It’s been a couple weeks working out, skating, progressing well.”
Initially, Couturier had back surgery in February of last year. Surgeons thought the problem had been corrected but when he experienced discomfort, a second operation was performed in late October.
It’s been a long process, to say the least.
“Just take it one day at a time and hopefully get to one hundred percent real soon,” Couturier said. “The goal ever since I got surgery was to come back at some point this year. So it’s something I’ve kind of had my mind on.
“It’s been tough at times not seeing the end of the tunnel. But here we are getting closer, finally being able to at least join the team for a morning skate, maybe get a practice in here by the end of the week. Go from there.”
So far, so good. Couturier says he can already do just about anything possible except contact drills.
“I feel good skating,” he said. “Shooting pucks, passing. . .but it’s by myself most of the time. It’s not like I’m on a line or in game situations. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
The former Frank J. Selke Trophy (best defensive forward) winner said the second “revision” surgery has been the key to his comeback.
“It’s day and night,” he said. “It feels a lot better.”
That wasn’t the case after the first surgery.
“There was always something nagging me,” he said. “It was not really knowing what it was. Didn’t know what it was, inflammation. They said it would go away but it lagged for awhile. Always feeling a little uncomfortable.
“Now I don’t have any of those feelings. I’m able to work out normally without any of those thoughts in the back of my mind.”
Couturier said he’s pushing as hard as he can.
“I’m trying to get back this year and get some games in,” he reiterated. “I know there’s only a month left in the season but I definitely would like to get a couple games in.”
Is it realistic he can really be himself in an NHL game with not what amounts to a full training period under his belt?
“I have to get into some practices, game situations,” he said. “See how I do execution-wise with the puck. It’s one thing to skate, hockey is a lot more than that – there’s timing, execution. I honestly know if it’s going to come back in a couple days, a couple weeks.”
In Couturier’s mind, even though the remaining games are meaningless in the standings, he wants to see where things stand. If he let his comeback go until next fall, it would be almost two years in between NHL games.
“I’m not getting any younger,” he said with a grin. “I just want to get a feel of the game. Going into the summer, I know what I have to do to be back at the level I need to be.”
Mentally, all this time off has been challenging.
“It’s been really tough,” he said. “With everything that’s going on around here. You feel left out a little bit. It’s been hard. I’m glad I’m back and get a feel of the chemistry, a feel of the team.
“I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs. You question yourself, you put a lot of things into perspective. I definitely miss the game. When you’re out for such a long time, you feel at times you almost take it for granted. When you’re back, you have to enjoy every moment because you don’t know when something like this can happen.”
As for the Flyers’ rebuilding process, Couturier believes he can still contribute in a big way. He’s signed to an eight-year, $64-million contract which runs through the 2029-30 season.
“Things have definitely changed in the last two or three years,” he said. “It was not a situation I was envisioning when I signed but here we are. That’s the business of the NHL, things can go one way or the other pretty quick in this league. Being part of a reload is not what you want but I think it’s the right thing to do in the time that we’re at.
“It’s kind of something we have to do. I’ll do my best to lead the right way and get this team back on track.”
Needless to say, coach John Tortorella would love to have a healthy Couturier back in the lineup. But the key word is “healthy.” The coach is going to rely on his medical staff before making any plans.
The impatience factor is large. “Coots” wants to play that badly and it shows.
“He’s out of his mind,” the coach said. “For me it’s not that important he plays games. But I’m not him. He’s losing his mind. For his sanity and for him to feel part of it before he leaves here, we have to consider it (playing) if it comes to that. I’d like to start fresh (next season) but I have to listen to the player.”
With Carter Hart ill, Felix Sandstrom was slated to start Tuesday night’s game against Vegas. Sam Ersson was called up from the Phantoms to serve as backup. In addition, Tyson Foerster was recalled from the Phantoms. Tony DeAngelo was set to return from a two-game suspension and Justin Braun was listed as a healthy scratch.