For whatever reason, the need for a legitimate center has gone unchecked in Philadelphia for years. Signing Kevin Hayes for seven years in 2019 was about the extent of the work Chuck Fletcher has put into seriously addressing the hole. Over the last few seasons, he’s attempted to fill it with multiple depth forwards like Derek Grant, Nate Thompson, Derek Brassard and in-house options like Nolan Patrick, Scott Laughton and Morgan Frost. All have not worked out, and a few key injuries to their top two centers in Sean Couturier and Kevin Hayes have shone a spotlight on just how dire their need for a top center truly is.
Sean Couturier, who has served as the team’s top center since 2017, recently signed a shiny new eight-year, $62 million contract that will kick during the 2022-23 campaign. He’ll turn 30 years old shortly after the start of the season.
In a press conference last week, we learned the Couturier had back surgery and will be out for the rest of the season. While the team didn’t elaborate on the type of procedure, the term “back surgery” can be a very scary phrase to utter. Was it major surgery? Was it simple? Was it his upper back or lower back? A pinched nerve or a herniated disc? The questions are endless, but the team is mum on any further details. They did say they expect him to be ready for training camp in the fall, so they seem confident he’ll return at full strength.
To be fair to Couturier, he very well might. If the surgery was simple, he could heal up and look like a new man next season playing like he’s five years younger. Of course, the flip side of that being that this could be the beginning of the end if something isn’t right. Look no further than David Clarkson or Nathan Horton for back injuries that ultimately became career-ending.
Kevin Hayes, who will turn 30 in May, is in a similar boat when it comes to the medical worries. He could be teed up for a fourth core muscle surgery in less than a year thanks to repeated efforts to return to game action too early. He originally sustained a core muscle injury during the 2020-21 season and underwent surgery last summer. He then had a separate core injury during training camp. He made two comebacks during the 2021-22 season, both times ending in another IR stint and a third “cleanup” surgery. When he was once again put on the shelf, it was made public that he’s probably done for the season and will need a fourth surgery to continue repairs.
Now the Flyers’ top two centers are 30 years old with extensive medical problems. Not exactly ideal for a franchise looking to finally put a winning product on the ice.
Unfortunately, first line centers don’t just grow on trees. Team’s aren’t typically looking to move their young, offensively dynamic centers when they’re one of their most important players. Meaning the Flyers will have to settle for second best in free agency, or pay out the wazoo to acquire one on the trade scene.
To make things worse, the crop of centers in the 2022 free agent market don’t exactly provide much help. Tomas Hertl, Ryan Strome, Nazem Kadri, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Joe Pavelski and Vincent Trocheck highlight the available options, none of which are overly enticing for a team that needs a bonafide top center.
There’s no easy fix, but it’s absolutely crucial the Flyers get this one right this summer. How do they get one? That’s Chuck Fletcher’s problem. He’s ignored possible solutions for years now, so the sympathy for the man shouldn’t be too high.
The 2022 offseason may be the most important summer in the history of the Philadelphia Flyers, and a top center is on the higher end of a pretty extensive wishlist. It could very well be the difference between success and failure next season, especially if Couturier and Hayes are at anything less than 100%. Fletcher better be ready to live up to the “Chucky Two-Trades” moniker, because he’s going to have to have the most creative offseason of his career to salvage the Philadelphia Flyers.
By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)
photo credit: tsn.ca / thehockeynews.com