Couturier, the defenseman? No, but his presence to incomplete Flyers is felt


VOORHEES, N.J. — Sean Couturier showed a smile as he took defensive reps in practice Saturday.

He didn't lack much gusto, almost resembling his typical nothing-comes-easy-against-me self.

It's tough reining in Couturier and telling him to not go hard, even when he's playing out of position and recovering from season-ending back surgery that he underwent Feb. 11.

But the hapless Flyers, in significant transition mode, will welcome his Selke Trophy pedigree in any shape or form.

"You know Coots, he's supposed to be out there maybe just doing a few flow drills and next thing you know, he bites off a little bit more, he wants to kill penalties and play as a defenseman," Flyers interim head coach Mike Yeo said Saturday. "I saw him in Montreal and kind of asked him why he's not playing right now, he looks so good. ... I kid, we're not entertaining the thought of playing him. But I'm sure that he could step in right now without any practices and be just as effective just because of the way he thinks the game."

Couturier accompanied the club on its two-game road swing to Canada, a trip that opened with a 5-2 loss to the Maple Leafs and finished with a 6-3 win over the Canadiens.

Now, the Flyers (24-43-11) have four games left in their 2021-22 season to forget. They've missed the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons. A big reason for this year going completely off the rails has been the injury to Couturier, who played in only 29 games. With Ryan Ellis (lower body) appearing in only four games, the Flyers had to find a way to overcome two crippling losses and never could.

Couturier, their first-line center, won the Bobby Clarke Trophy (Flyers MVP) the past three seasons, while Ellis, an all-situation defenseman, was the team's prized offseason acquisition.

The Flyers are playing a young and inexperienced group to wrap up this season. They had six rookies in the lineup Thursday against Montreal and seven earlier this month in a 4-0 loss to the Rangers.

With Couturier back in practice, there's an uptick in normalcy.

"It was good having him around on the road trip," Yeo said. "He's obviously a big leader for our team and just a great presence in the locker room, a great role model — not just for all the young guys that we have, but I know even some of the players that are around have conversations, 'What do you see up top in my game?' It's great to have him around."

Next season, the 29-year-old Couturier will start Year 1 of an eight-year, $62 million contract extension he signed last August.

Right now, his presence in practice is a good start.

The Flyers feel it.

"A lot of times, you start training camp and you've got your 50-some-odd players that are out there, you've got your two groups and everybody's interchanged and mixed," Yeo said. "You can just see the level of your practice, how it goes up, when you sort of make your first cuts. And that's not to say those guys aren't going to be good enough; they're just not quite there yet. It just shows, you add a guy into our practice like Coots and all of a sudden everybody practices a little bit better, the pace is a little bit better.

"We've talked about injuries so much here this year, but you look at a team like Montreal. They went to the Stanley Cup Final last year and then they come into this year without Carey Price and Shea Weber, and what that meant to their team. It's not just the play, it's how important they are in the locker room, the leadership that they provide on a day-to-day basis.

"Coots is obviously that for us, as well. So just even having him back, having him in practice raises the level of practice, raises the level of skill that's out there. But his presence, the way that he approaches the game on a day-to-day basis, that is good for everybody."

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