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At this stage, Flyers have no reason to activate Sean Couturier from injured reserve

The Flyers have been without their top-line center all season, but at this point, why play him at all?

NHL: Preseason-New York Islanders at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

It has been 14 months since Philadelphia Flyers center Sean Couturier last suited up for a game. Couturier, arguably the Flyers’ best player, has been out of commission for over a year due to a pair of back surgeries. He underwent surgery in February of 2022, knocking him out for the remainder of the season, and in October, the Flyers announced the 30-year-old underwent another back surgery, giving him a rough timetable of 3-4 months to return.

Well, it’s been nearly four full months since Couturier’s second back surgery, and there’s still no word on when, or if, he can be expected to return. But as the campaign drags on, the Flyers face an interesting dilemma — is it even in Couturier’s best interest to play at all this season?

It’s a fair debate.

On one hand, there’s no doubt the addition of Couturier to the lineup would do wonders for a Flyers team lacking efficiency in the offensive zone — they currently rank 27th in the league in goals per game. Couturier, after once primarily being viewed strictly as a shutdown defensive center, has developed into a legitimate two-way threat, as evidenced by his Frank J. Selke Trophy-winning performance in 2019-20. He’s averaged a 72-point pace over a full 82-game season since the 2017-18 campaign, and his skills in the faceoff circle certainly wouldn’t hurt the Flyers — especially on the power play, where they rank 31st in the NHL ahead of only the Anaheim Ducks.

Couturier still has yet to play a game under new head coach John Tortorella, and there aren’t many players who would fit better in Tortorella’s system. So much of Tortorella’s mission as the Flyers’ bench boss has been making the Flyers harder to play against, and Couturier’s strong 200-foot game would certainly help the squad in that regard.

But would Couturier’s theoretical return really do the Flyers that much good?

The Flyers, who have lost seven of their last nine contests, are now eight points out of a playoff spot with a very difficult stretch of games on the horizon. The Flyers will kick off March with games against the New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, Pittsburgh Penguins and Vegas Golden Knights, all in the span of two weeks. And things won’t get much easier from there.

But even if the Flyers did manage to put together a Herculean effort to remain in the playoff race, how long would it take Couturier to get back up to full speed? Will he even be able to return to his pre-surgery form? Would it be worth risking his health just to potentially fall short of the playoffs again?

In all likelihood, no.

Another one of Tortorella’s objectives for the season was to get an idea of what the Flyers have in the system in regard to young talent. Wade Allison, Morgan Frost, Owen Tippett and Cam York are all finally getting a taste of what it’s like being full-timers in the NHL, but one of the Flyers’ other youngsters has made a real impression on Tortorella. And it’s because of his Couturier-like play that has Torts singing his praises.

Currently taking over for Couturier on the top line is rookie Noah Cates, who has logged 24 points in 56 games. His scoring numbers don’t necessarily jump off the page, but he has made strides as the Flyers’ shutdown center, matching up against opposing teams’ top stars. Earlier this month, Cates was given the tall task of neutralizing Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid — the same role Couturier would have taken on if he were healthy enough to take the ice. Cates passed that test with flying colors, helping to guide the Flyers to a 2-1 victory and limiting McDavid to just one point.

It would be nice if both Cates and Couturier could draw into the lineup, but for the latter, the risks are significant and serve no real purpose. Couturier is under contract for eight more years, and the Flyers need him to be completely healthy before trusting him to take the ice. And if he really is fully recovered from surgery, it’s better to play it safe and look ahead to next season while Cates continues to earn valuable reps against other teams’ top players.

The Flyers have made the mistake of letting players return too soon before. That’s not a mistake they can afford to make again.

With just 26 games remaining in the Flyers’ season, barring an absolute miracle of a run in the regular season’s homestretch, the club is overwhelmingly likely to miss the playoffs for the third consecutive year. And with little to play for other than pride — and to get a better assessment of where their young players stand — it’s obvious what the Flyers should do with their cornerstone center.