Nick Cousins' journey - from overmatched AHL player to second-line center with the Flyers - is a credit to his perseverance.

Three seasons ago, if you would have suggested Cousins would one day be in the Flyers' top six, you would have been greeted with skepticism. And rolled eyes.

But with Sean Couturier sidelined by a knee injury for at least another month, Cousins is getting a chance to show he belongs in that role.

In his first full season with the AHL's Phantoms, in 2013-14, Cousins, then 20, collected just 29 points in 74 games. There were concerns about his size and doubts he would make it to the NHL.

"I've come a long way," he said the other day, "but I still have a way to go."

Cousins had numerous conversations during that 2013-14 season with Phantoms coach Terry Murray. "A lot of meetings after games and stuff I had to work on," Cousins said. "I took it to heart and worked real hard to get where I am today. I want to be a 200-foot player."

On Wednesday, in the Flyers' 4-2 loss to Tampa Bay, Cousins replaced the injured Couturier, moving from the fourth line to the second.

"First and foremost, he's a really smart player," general manager Ron Hextall said. "He's competitive, he's got a little bit of an edge to him, and he's proved at every level that he can play an offensive-type role, a two-way role. Now he has this opportunity to prove it at this level."

Couturier, who had five goals in 20 games and is a solid penalty killer and the team's best defensive forward, will miss four to six weeks.

"We can't just sit and say, 'OK, Cuz is going to replace Coots.' It's not fair. Coots is a big part of our team," Hextall said. "So Cuz has to do his job, no question. Scotty [Laughton] has to do his job. So does everybody else. They'll just have to give a little more. That's how we're going to survive."

Laughton was recalled from Lehigh Valley and has taken Cousins' old spot as the fourth-line center.

Cousins knows this could be a career-altering chance for him.

"It's a good opportunity to show what I can do," he said. "Getting a little more playing time is all I can ask for as a young guy."

Cousins, 23, starred in the Ontario Hockey League for four years. In his last season at Sault Ste. Marie, he had 103 points, including 76 assists, in 64 games.

Then came the rude AHL awakening.

"Coming out of junior and playing all those minutes - you're playing on the power play, playing on the penalty kill, all that stuff. And you come into pro hockey, and you don't know what to expect," he said. "I had a pretty decent start the first 10 games, then after that, I sort of hit a wall. I wasn't moving my feet as well as I'd like to. I was a healthy scratch there once as well. It was definitely a big wake-up call and eye-opener for me, and it made me work that much harder and made me want it that much more."

"My first year back here, when he was in Glens Falls, he had a lot of work to do," Hextall said. "Give him credit. He learned how to work. It's not that he didn't want to work. He didn't quite know the expectations at the pro level, so that first year was a bit of an awakening for him. Give the kid credit because he's worked his tail off."

Cousins rebounded, had two impressive seasons with the Phantoms, and had six goals and 11 points in a 36-game stint with the Flyers last year.

Now he has a chance to take another positive step, though no one expects him to provide Couturier's defense. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Cousins has more speed than Couturier, and although he's feisty, he can't match the physicality or faceoff know-how that the 6-3, 197-pound Couturier provides.

Hextall said he "can't say enough" about Couturier.

"He's one of my favorite players, and most coaches and most hockey people appreciate the game he plays," Hextall said. "It's a big one for us. It's a big loss."

Hextall said the Flyers are "asking a lot" from Cousins, who is on a line with Travis Konecny and Wayne Simmonds.

"He's playing with really good players," Hextall said. ". . . He has a great opportunity here."

And if he takes advantage of it, the impressive 2011 trade made by then-general manager Paul Holmgren will look even better. Holmgren sent Jeff Carter to Columbus for Jake Voracek and first- and third-round draft picks in 2011.

Those picks became Couturier and Cousins, respectively.

@BroadStBull