Reflecting was fine, but Couturier most happy joining Flyers' skate, eyes a game


VOORHEES, N.J. — Sean Couturier's game resembles the opposite of taking things for granted.

He competes for every inch of the ice, a true 200-foot force with a nothing-comes-easy-against-me mantra.

Couturier hasn't touched the game ice in over a year. He has undergone two back surgeries in the span of eight and a half months.

Through hardship, his appreciation for the game has grown. Coming from a guy who personifies playing the game the right way, it tells you a lot about what he has endured.

"It's something that, I think when you're out for such a long time, you feel at sometimes you almost take it for granted," Couturier said Tuesday. "That's definitely something I've kind of learned, that when I'm back, enjoy it as much as you can, every moment. You never know when something like this can happen. That's the biggest thing that I've learned."

Couturier took a positive step Tuesday in what has become a trying path back toward playing again. Wearing a yellow non-contact jersey, Couturier participated in the Flyers' morning skate. He had been rehab skating separate from the team for multiple weeks.

The 30-year-old center hasn't played since December 2021. Last season, he had back surgery in February, which knocked him out for the rest of the year. He seemed poised for a full return to start this season. However, he felt concerning pain in his back just a handful of days before training camp. Eventually, it resulted in a second surgery during late October.

"I've been through a lot of ups and downs," Couturier said. "You question yourself and you put a lot of things into perspective around hockey and in life, family time and stuff. Definitely miss the game.

"Just be patient, have some balance in life — hockey, family, on and off the ice. There's definitely been too much time to think, so I'm just glad to finally be around the team and focus on what I love doing."

Couturier was able to smile often Tuesday. He said his back feels much better this time around. Prior to the second procedure, stated as a back revision, Couturier experienced periodic pain throughout his recovery and offseason training.

"It's night and day, it feels a lot better," he said. "Last time, there was always a little something kind of nagging me. I was kind of just pushing through it not really knowing what it was. We didn't really know, too, what it was — it was kind of just inflammation. It was said it would go away but kind of lagged for a while.

"I was able to pretty much do everything, but it was just kind of always feeling a little uncomfortable down the glute area. Then once I got pushing real hard, it kind of just came back and flared up on me. Now, I haven't had any of those feelings or anything."

The rebuilding Flyers are 24-31-11 with 16 games left on the season. Couturier hopes to play in some of them. While the games don't hold any meaning for a playoff race, they're important to Couturier before the summer.

"For me, it's not that important that he plays games," Flyers head coach John Tortorella said Tuesday. "But I'm not him, either. He's losing his mind. For his sanity and for him to feel part of it maybe before he leaves here, I've got to take that into consideration if it comes to that."

Couturier's presence at the morning skate was felt.

"It's good for the guys, too. Both ways. But yeah, he's out of his mind," Tortorella said with a slight smile about the competitive Couturier. "I just stay clear of him. There's no sense of being around him because he's so miserable [not playing]."

Kevin Hayes found real value in returning from injury last season during March of a completely lost year for the club. It helped him shake off rust and build reassurance that his body can feel well while playing.

"It's something that I've actually talked a little bit with him," Couturier said. "Especially for me, if I wait until next year, it's going to be almost two years I haven't played an NHL game, which is not ideal. I'm not getting any younger, either. I just want to get a feel of the game, knowing that going into the summer, I know what I have to do to be back at the level I need to be.

"Just feeling good about yourself, that you're back being a hockey player and not just rehabbing. I've done that enough I feel in the last couple of months, year and a half."

Flyers head athletic trainer Tommy Alva and the club will closely monitor Couturier's status this week.

"Next step is talk to Tommy, can he practice full on Thursday," Tortorella said. "If he can or can't, we'll see. If he can, we'll throw some more practices at him. I'm going to go all through the medical staff as far as how they feel about him because he's that important."

Tortorella has coached against Couturier a ton in his career. He appreciates the way he plays.

"He's got some old school in him," Tortorella said. "I have a ton of respect for him as far as from afar, watching him play, the situations he has been put in.

"I don't know how he is in the room, how all that goes on, but I watch how hard he plays and all the situations that he succeeded in. Sure, I think about it. Is he going to be healthy enough to play? I don't know. He's gone through a couple [skates], he feels great, let's just hope it keeps on going down the right road.

"My mind, I'm thinking about camp next year [with Couturier]; not so much games this year. But I've got to show him the respect and have conversations if that time comes."

Teammates have seen Couturier's perseverance.

"It takes a strong person to be able to go through that," Ivan Provorov said Tuesday. "The mental toughness you need for that, to come to the rink and be positive. I think he has done a great job."

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