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Sean Couturier

After playing in just 74 of 138 (53.6%) of the Flyers’ games over the last two seasons, Sean Couturier is set to begin 2022-23 on the shelf for an extended time. (Len Redkoles/National Hockey League/Getty)

Sean Couturier’s “Significant” Back Injury Latest Part of Flyers’ Downward Spiral

After playing in just 74 of 138 (53.6%) of the Flyers’ games over the last two seasons, Sean Couturier is set to begin 2022-23 on the shelf for an extended time. (Len Redkoles/National Hockey League/Getty)

If there was one saving grace for the Flyers as the start of training camp for the 2022-23 season approaches, it’s that things almost wouldn’t break as universally against them as they did the prior season. That doesn’t mean fans were expecting them to be good. The Flyers ranked dead last in The Athletic’s fan front office confidence survey last month. Only one player, their first-line center Sean Couturier, made the site’s list of the NHL’s top 100 players. The team earned just 65 points last year and did not make any substantial improvements in the offseason. But after being one of the NHL’s most injury-plagued teams a year ago, a new season and the health that comes with it could at least allow fans to paint the most optimistic version of the team in their minds — even if that version may pare in comparison to other teams.

But now, even that assurance is gone. The Flyers already knew that Ryan Ellis, their No. 1 defenseman, would be out to at least start the 2022-23 season after playing just four games last year. Prospect Bobby Brink was injured during the summer and is set to be out for a few more months. But at least their main contributors (aside from Ellis) were either still healthy or on the mend. That is until Crossing Broad’s Anthony SanFilippo reported that the team’s biggest piece, 2019-20 Selke Trophy winner, Sean Couturier, isn’t doing fine after all. Far from it, in fact.

SanFilippo reports that Couturier, who underwent surgery for a back injury in February, has suffered a herniated disk that could keep out anywhere from 12 weeks to the entire season. But regardless of the timeline, Couturier’s injury is a massive concern for both the short and long term.

The Flyers brought in John Tortorella as head coach and added Tony DeAngelo and some depth pieces to try to stem the tide after their nightmare 2021-22 campaign. The Flyers weren’t planning on being Cup contenders in 2022-23. Even contending for a wild card spot was going to be a bit of a stretch. But they at least hoped to re-establish a foundation to build on in the future after everything collapsed a season ago. Tortorella has talked numerous times about the importance of fixing the Flyers’ locker room. Winning games with at least some consistency isn’t the only thing that will do that. But it sure helps.

With Couturier absent, winning games will be much, much harder for the Orange and Black. Couturier is absolutely vital to the Flyers for both what he brings to the table and what the Flyers have around him, which is not much. The team’s depth chart at center behind the No. 8 pick in the 2011 Draft is full of question marks. Kevin Hayes has been an effective 2C at times in his NHL career. But he’s coming off a surgery-plagued 2021-22 season and turned 30 in May. Morgan Frost, despite possessing clear skill, hasn’t yet established himself as a legitimate NHL center. Scott Laughton has, but a player with a career-high of 32 points isn’t someone you want as an everyday top-six forward. Basically, every other center in the organization is either not NHL-ready or a bottom-sixer at best.

Couturier, meanwhile, is basically the lone star on a Flyers team clearly lacking top-end talent. Throw out last year’s injury-plagued 29-game stint, and Couturier has scored at a 70-point or better pace each of the last four seasons. The last Flyer to do that was Claude Giroux, who did so for six straight seasons from 2011-12 to 2015-16. And offense isn’t even Couturier’s calling card. He’s primarily an elite shutdown center, capable of making life difficult for even the league’s most dominant scorers. He’s always been strong by advanced metrics as well.

The only thing scarier to confront than Couturier’s cloudy short-term future is the even murkier big picture. Suddenly, it’s possible the 29-year-old (who turns 30 on Dec. 7) may play less than 30 games across two full NHL seasons. Even crueler is that this season makes the first season of an eight-year, $62 million extension Couturier inked less than 13 months ago. Philadelphia’s best forward (Couturier) and defenseman (Ellis) both have incredibly scary futures. Even if they can return at some point, there’s no guarantee either will return to their elite status. Ellis is 31 and under contract for five seasons at a $6.25 million cap hit.

Since their excellent 2019-20 season, the Flyers have hardly done themselves any favors. Most of the decisions made by GM Chuck Fletcher have blown up in his face. The Flyers fired their head coach last season and performed even worse under their interim bench boss. Their once heralded prospect pool is mediocre at best with not nearly enough to show for it at the NHL level. If the Flyers are once again one of the NHL’s worst teams in 2022-23, it won’t just be because things didn’t break their way by a long shot.

But it’s also difficult to underestimate the degree of bad breaks the team has dealt with over the last few seasons. Even 2019-20, their one “good” season, saw two of the team’s young talents dealt with life-altering diagnoses. The next season, they were temporarily shut down due to a team-wide COVID outbreak. Their starting goalie sputtered out the worst single-season save percentage (min. 25 games played) in the salary cap era. Every single player under 25 except Joel Farabee regressed. Couturier and Ellis didn’t play a single game in the 2022 part of the 2021-22 season. Hayes lost his brother and underwent multiple surgeries. Derick Brassard returned from injury to play one game and get hurt again not once, not twice, but thrice. Two of the team’s trainers sued the organization for getting cancer due to carcinogens from the team’s Zambonis.

With Sean Couturier out long-term, it’s hard to see the Flyers traveling down a happy road in the near future.

It’s why to many, the news of Sean Couturier’s injury suddenly surfacing probably wasn’t much of a shock. That level of bad luck creates a feeling that’s hard to shake. So does the level of failure the Flyers have endured over the past two seasons. And on Monday, just three days before the peak of hope that the first day of training camp usually is commences, the Flyers were given a brutally blunt affirmation that their fortunes don’t appear to be turning anytime soon.

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