Anybody remember Sean Couturier? He was the Flyers’ top center for a few years after being drafted in the first round of the 2011 draft and even won a Selke trophy in 2020 for his strong two-way play. It’s easy to forget though considering we haven’t seen him in quite a while.
His last game was December 18, 2021, and considering his timeline for his return from his second back surgery seems like it will come down to the wire whether or not he’ll return this season, he’ll more than likely eye a comeback for October of 2023, nearly two full years since he last suited up.
Considering the extent of back surgeries is still unconfirmed it’s hard to know for sure what exactly he’s recovering from. Couturier himself seems to feel much better than he did in September during his original comeback, seems to indicate he’s at least in a better overall spot and the second surgery fixed whatever was ailing him.
The obvious question here is how many players return from a nearly two-year absence?
Spoiler alert: not many players miss consecutive seasons then re-enter the NHL flawlessly in the same role they had when they left.
Penguins legend Mario Lemieux is probably the most famous example of a player who missed multiple stretches of over a year. He missed time recovering from his cancer and subsequent treatments as well as missing 50 games with a herniated disc that required surgery during the 1990-91 and would have a second back surgery in the summer of 1993. He would retire at the end of the 1997 season. He later made a comeback in 2000 and played parts of the next five seasons. Though he’s Mario Lemieux, one of the greatest players of all time, it’s a high and not at all comparable bar.
Jaromir Jagr is probably the second best example of a player leaving and returning after multiple years. He left the NHL in 2008 after mutually not re-signing with the Rangers to play in the KHL, though he returned in 2011 for another seven seasons. There were no major injuries that kept him away it was a personal decision to finish his career in a different league, but he was 39 years old upon his return with the Flyers.
There are players like Sam Morin and Robby Fabbri who tore their ACL’s in quick succession, playing only a handful of games over the course of a couple years to deal with their injuries. Morin ultimately had to retire. Fabbri is still playing, though has accumulated more than his fair share of injuries over the years.
Cam Neely of the Boston Bruins missed all but 22 games over the course of a two-year span after a pair of serious injuries stemming from the 1991 playoffs. He ultimately retired in 1996, and interestingly enough, attempted a comeback in 1998 after two years away from the game. He couldn’t get back into game shape and the lingering effects from his hip injury shut down his efforts for a return before ever making it past the practice stage.
Closer to home, Eric Lindros sat out the entire 2000-01 season recovering from multiple concussions the season before whilst being embroiled in a contract dispute and GM Bobby Clarke refused to meet his trade demands for a full year. He had one more good season with the Rangers in 2001-02, but his play diminished quite a bit for the remaining four years he’s play in the league.
Though if we’re keeping this to back injuries, list of players who were forced into retirement could go on forever.
Alex Steen, Henrik Zetterberg, Martin Hanzal, Derek Dorsett, Mike Bossy, Kevin Klein, Grant Clitsome, Ryan Callahan, Nathan Horton, David Clarkson, Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Phillips, Brian Rafalski, Marian Gaborik, Bryce Salvador and that’s just a list of names pulled from various headlines from a single Google search.
Of those names, Gaborik and Salvador may be the most relevant to Couturier’s situation. Gaborik had a herniated disc and subsequent surgery at the end of the 2017-18 season and never played again, despite still having three years on his deal at the time.
Salvador had a bulging disc and nerve damage which limited him to just 15 games during the 2014-15 season and ultimately forced him to hang up the skates. He had previously missed the entirety of the 2010-11 season with lingering concussion problems.
Couturier has been skating by himself for weeks and joined the rest of the team in a no-contact jersey just a few days ago, which theoretically signals a return is getting closer. Head coach John Tortorella said he’s prefer Couturier get a fresh start next season, but also wouldn’t stop him from playing if he does get cleared before season’s end.
There’s exactly four weeks and 16 games left of the 2022-23 season on the day of publication. It’s a race against the clock for Couturier to make it back this year, a race he seemingly has the slight upper hand on at the moment.
And something interesting to consider in all of this- What happens if Couturier gets hurt again? If he tweaks his back somewhere along the road to return, or within the next year or two, that could put his playing career in serious jeopardy.
Sean Couturier seems to be in relative good heath and poised to give making a return another go. Is he recognizable when he gets back? It’s not impossible, but history seems to suggest that he may not be the Couturier that shut down the top forwards in the league once upon a time. Considering he’s still got seven years left on his contract, the Flyers are hoping he can not only play again, but do so at a reasonably high level.
By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)
photo credit: nhl.om