VOORHEES, N.J. — Instead of taking the ice and going through John Tortorella's skating gauntlet to kick off 2022 training camp, Sean Couturier was scheduled to see a specialist for further evaluation on his back.
The Flyers are holding their breath as they seek out answers to what's ailing their first-line center.
Couturier's back suddenly became painful and problematic again just a handful of days before the start of camp. General manager Chuck Fletcher called the back issue a "tricky injury." It limited his do-it-all pivot to 29 games last season and required surgery in February.
On Monday, the Flyers listed Couturier as week to week with an upper-body injury. In December of last season, he was considered week to week with the upper-body injury before eventually needing his season-ending procedure.
How serious is the second occurrence of the injury?
The Flyers are trying to find out. They were staying hopeful Thursday as Couturier went for his second opinion.
"Based on that meeting and that appointment, we'll try to come up with a plan of attack," Fletcher said. "As we have more information, we'll let you know."
Couturier was practicing with the Flyers at the end of last season and seemed poised for a good summer. The expectation, going back to when he underwent surgery, was a full return for training camp and the 2022-23 regular season. A week and a half ago, despite dealing with some setbacks throughout the summer, Couturier said he had been cleared and was good to go.
Then some pain cropped up.
"He woke up one morning and was in a little more discomfort than normal," Fletcher said, noting Couturier's injury is in the same area as the one from last season.
"I know over the course of the summer, he was improving, but yet from time to time, he had some nerve irritation in his glutes. He was told that it was a normal part of the process, continue to train. At some point over the last week, things deteriorated and it got to the point where he was not sleeping as well and experiencing some pain.
"What triggered that, I don't know. Was it a recurrence? Was it a reinjury? Was it just not fully healed from before? I don't know. ... It's something where everyday life, you get in and out of a car, you sleep the wrong way, you pick something up, you work out, you skate. There's a whole host of components that impact your back, as we all know.
"We'll try to get to the bottom of it and we'll do what's best for Sean."
A reason for optimism was Couturier's optimism. Fletcher was surprised when he fielded a question Thursday about the injury potentially coming with career-threatening concern.
"Wow," he said, "I think we're a long way away from knowing that. Speaking with him this morning, I had breakfast with him, he feels much better than he did last year. He's able to walk around, he can sit comfortably, he feels he could even go out and skate right now. So to suggest it's career-ending or season-ending I think is a long way away. But we'll leave it up to the specialist and see what his opinion is and then we'll get together and get a plan."
Over the last two seasons, the Flyers went 18-38-8 in games without Couturier in the lineup. They went 32-31-11 when he was in the lineup.
"Back surgery in general is really tough and not something you want to mess with," Joel Farabee said Thursday. "I think as a team and the staff here, we're really optimistic it's not going to be too long. He's obviously a crucial part of this team, so the sooner we can get him back, the better."
Farabee is amid his own injury recovery. While his status for the Oct. 13 season opener is uncertain, he's progressing well after undergoing disc replacement surgery in his neck area three months ago. The Flyers won't rush him.
"He feels great," Fletcher said. "We want to be careful here."
The 22-year-old winger took part in Thursday's grueling skate but has not yet been cleared for contact.
"That'll probably depend a little bit on how he feels in the skating portion and the practice portion of camp," Fletcher said, "but I think we're still looking week to week."
Farabee was surprised when he felt the injury come on in June.
"It was my first week back in the gym. I was actually racking a bench press set and it was a warmup, like it was 90 pounds, it was really light," he said. "Just kind of reached back and just felt a really weird pinch in my neck. From there, was having a lot of pain, a lot of nerve pain and stuff like that."
The 2018 first-round pick missed 19 games last season with two different occurrences of an injury to his left shoulder area. The pandemic-shortened season prior, he led the Flyers in goals with 20 and finished with 38 points through 55 games.
His focus right now is building back strength, being physically strong enough for games. His conditioning is in a pretty good spot because he had been on the ice for informal workouts over the last month.
"I feel like after the skate today, I felt pretty good, probably wasn't expecting to feel that good," Farabee said.
"I'm constantly talking with my doctor and the guys here. I can't confirm yet what my timeline looks like, but for right now, I feel really good. I've been lifting quite a bit and getting on the ice here for the last month, so definitely getting my body to where it needs to be."
Farabee became the third NHL player to ever have this procedure, joining Golden Knights center Jack Eichel and Blackhawks forward Tyler Johnson. Farabee's surgery was performed by Dr. Jon Yoon at Penn Medicine.
"Talking with Dr. Yoon at Penn Medicine after getting an MRI in the summer, I felt it was probably the best decision in terms of my pain level," Farabee said. "I was having a lot of nerve pain going down my arm. I felt like it was the best decision for myself and for my career. He did a great job. My body feels really good now and having no issues with it."
On top of the Flyers' challenges down the middle with Couturier's injury, fourth-line center candidate Patrick Brown is recovering from offseason back surgery. He was on the ice last week for rehab skating.
"Timeline's a little murky, I would call it week to week," Fletcher said. "He is skating, but he has not been cleared for contact."
If the Flyers are without Couturier and Brown for some time, they're projected to have Kevin Hayes, Scott Laughton and Morgan Frost as their top-nine centers. Tanner Laczynski and veteran Artem Anisimov are a couple of candidates to play fourth-line center.
Anisimov, 34, is in camp on a professional tryout. He played parts of four seasons for Tortorella when the Flyers' head coach was with the Rangers. The 6-foot-4 forward played in the KHL last season after being released from his PTO with the Avalanche.
"I had Artie in New York, a young guy, just a terrific man. Family man now," Tortorella said. "A really intellectual player, he's very good positionally, he can play up and down the lineup, he can kill penalties, can play center or wing, good teammate.
"I don't know what he is right now. But when Chuck asked me about him, and Chuck did, we had conversations, I said there's a lot there that interests me about him because of the versatility of him as a player in all positions and he's an intelligent guy. I don't know, I don't where it all goes."
Tortorella wasn't ready to discuss adjustments without Couturier on Day 1.
"To start assessing if he's out, what happens, I can't tell you because I don't know what the team's going to be," he said. "There's nothing given here as far as where people are playing and who they're playing with. We haven't even used the pucks yet."
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