Philadelphia Flyers winger Joel Farabee underwent cervical disc replacement surgery on Friday, per a press release by the organization later in the day. The surgery was performed by Penn Medicine neurosurgeon Dr. Jon Yoon. The player is expected to be out for three to four months but to make a full recovery.
The procedure that Farabee underwent is similar to the one that Vegas Golden Knights center Jack Eichel underwent in November of 2021. While Eichel was still a member of the Buffalo Sabres organization, eight months after the need for surgery was diagnosed. Eichel pushed to have artificial disc replacement (ADR) while the Sabres organization insisted to the more traditional anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF) procedure. Although ADR had been performed -- with successful long-term outcomes -- on athletes from other sports, Eichel was the first NHL player to undergo disc replacement. He returned to play 34 games.
Even in a best-case rehabilitation scenario, Farabee will miss most of the Flyers' training camp in September. On the more conservative four-month timetable, he'd miss the first month of the regular season. It will take time to ramp up to high-intensity skating and then from wearing a no-contact jersey to being a full participant in practice. Once medically cleared to play, Farabee will likely need some time to regain his in-game skating legs and timing.
The long-term prognosis for Farabee should be fine. Nonetheless, the severity of the player's injury to require cervical disc replacement surgery and even the most optimistic timetables to full recovery cannot be construed as anything other than bad news. There is a possibility that Farabee will have to start the 2022-23 season on injured reserve or long-term injured reserve depending on where his return timetable stands when the opening-night roster has to be filed with the National Hockey League.
The 22-year-old Farabee is slated to begin a new six-year contract in 2022-23, carrying a $5 million cap hit. The extension was signed Sept. 2, 2021, while Farabee was preparing to play the final season of his entry-level contract.
Coming off a breakthrough second season in the NHL that saw the young player achieve his first 20-goal season despite the schedule being shortened to 56 games due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Farabee seemed to be poised for bigger and better things in 2021-22. He set a specific goal of being less streaky both in his point production and his overall game.
Farabee stormed out of the gates with six points (3g, 3a) in the season's first three games. Unfortunately, much like the Flyers team as a whole -- which started out 6-2-2 through 10 games and then had the bottom drop out on what became a nightmarish season -- the early promise soon gave way to frustration.
Farabee went pointless in eight straight games and produced only a single point (1g, 0a) over a 14-game span from Oct. 23 to Nov. 23. Late in the drought, there were signs of his game coming around game -- a five-shot-on-goal effort against Boston on Nov. 20 was followed by a solid individual outing against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Finally, the goals started coming again in the next game against the eventual President's Trophy winning Florida Panthers.
For the second time in the season, Farabee rattled off goals in three straight games. On Dec. 1, the Flyers traveled to New York to play the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. At 8:32 of the first period, Farabee lost an edge on a non-contact play. Sliding toward the boards, Farabee accidentally took Rangers defenseman K'Andre Miller's skates out from under him. Farabee went left shoulder first into the lower part of the side boards with Miller falling on top of him.
A hunched-over Farabee exited the ice under his own power, accompanied by director of medical services Jim McCrossin. Farabee appeared to be favoring his shoulder. He went back to the bench, however, not down the tunnel to the dressing room. The player attempted to skate one more shift, but realized he'd be unable to continue. (Note: There is video of the play here).
Farabee missed the next seven games, returning on Dec. 17 against the Ottawa Senators. He appeared to be fully recovered as the Flyers went into the Christmas break and then began a western road trip as the player posted six points (3g, 3a) in his first six games back in the lineup.
In late January, the injury bug bit Farabee again in back-to-back games. In a third period of a shootout loss to the New York Islanders, Farabee was checked into the boards by Islanders' defenseman Noah Dobson. The hit itself was clean but Farabee went a bit awkwardly into the boards and once again skated off favoring his left shoulder.
Farabee remained in the lineup for the Flyers' next game; a 2-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. He finished that game, too, but was clearly not himself on the ice. The next day, the Flyers announced that Farabee would miss up to the next four weeks with an upper-body injury.
Mike Yeo, the Flyers interim head coach at the time, said Farabee had gotten hurt both in the Islanders and Blue Jackets games but was vague on the details of exactly what and when in the game the latter situation happened.
"Something happened [against Columbus]. I don't want to say that it is or it isn't [related to the Dobson hit one game prior]. Obviously, things happen. I would say that there's a good chance that it's related to that," Yeo said on Jan. 21.
Farabee was out of the Flyers lineup until Feb. 26 against Washington. He had an assist in a 2-1 home victory that was one of the team's few "60-minute effort" victories of the season. A week later, Farabee had a season-high three assist performance in a home matinee win over the Chicago Blackhawks: arguably the most physically intense and punishing game of the season.
Over the second half of March, Farabee seemed to be settling into a groove. In a nine-game stretch from March 13 (vs. Montreal) to March 29 (at Minnesota), Farabee posted four goals, six assists and 10 points. In the final game of the stretch, Farabee absorbed two or three solid hits but nothing that seemed to be out of the ordinary or have immediate ill effects.
However, Farabee's play dropped off a cliff thereafter for the remainder of the season. It wasn't just a lack of point production -- two goals and zero assists over his final 14 games -- the player's overall game noticeably dropped off in effectiveness.
He was not forechecking well at all, for example, and he was losing far more 50-50 puck battles than he won. Additionally, while traditional plus-minus is a limited and often deceptive statistic, Farabee's minus-14 in that span was uncharacteristic of the player.
Part of the problem, no doubt, was that Farabee was moved to center for a portion of the latter season; an ill-fated experiment. The natural winger struggled to make the various adjustments that are necessary to handling the myriad two-way and faceoff-taking responsibilities that come with playing in the middle. Even when moved back to a wing, though, Farabee's game was at a low ebb.
On Exit Day, Farabee said he declined an offer from USA Hockey to play at the 2022 IIHF World Championship in Finland. His plan was to rest for several weeks and then work on his offseason training program to start preparing for next season.
Asked about his health and the various shoulder issues over the season, Farabee insisted he was OK.
"The shoulder feels good. I think coming back the first time it definitely wasn’t in great shape. Definitely tried to play through it a bit, but I think coming back from the second time, I felt a lot stronger. Ever since then it’s been good. Obviously, it gets a little sore with the schedule. I think playing back-to-backs like that can get a little sore, but at the end of the day, its strength was there. I felt pretty good actually the last few weeks of the season there," Farabee said.
Farabee was then asked about his late season struggles on the ice. How much was physical? How much was mental? How much was due to the experiment of playing at center?
"I think it’s a number of things. New guys come into the lineup; you’re playing with a different line each game it can be tough. I think when I moved to center, it’s definitely a bigger responsibility out there. I’m trying to play a better two-way. For me, I try not to worry about scoring too much," Farabee said.
"I think at the end of the year, it’s easy to get frustrated when the team’s struggling and you want to score. I just tried to focus on my two-way game and let the scoring come to me. Definitely not happy with struggling the way I did, but I think there’s a lot to learn from this year. I think playing center was a good test for me... I don’t think [playing center] is necessarily something that I’ll switch to long-term. I think for me, what I feel like I showed that in a jam or if the team needs me to, I can play in a situation. I don’t think it’s a long-term thing for me. I feel like I’m pretty confident in my ability at wing and pretty comfortable there. For me I was just proving that I’m able to play the position and can do that in certain situations."
With Farabee electing not to play at the World Championships, his name was not in the news for most of the last two months. That changed in a hurry with Friday's announcement that he'd undergone cervical disc replacement surgery.
As of this writing, a host of questions remain unanswered: Was Farabee having neck problems in addition to the shoulder injuries during the second half of season? It's certainly possible that there was some correlation. It's also possible the herniated cervical disc issue was something that built over time and possibly predated the shoulder issues from December onward.
When was the cervical disc diagnosed? Was this a situation where diagnostic tests were performed in the recent past but inconclusive? Was it a situation where surgery was brought up as an option but more conservative treatments were tried first? Did Farabee have any sort of new injury happen in early off-season training since the conclusion the 2022-23 season? These are scenarios that would make sense for why the player was not shut down last season and the surgery performed sooner.
All of these scenarios are speculative. More clarity is needed on the timeline of the neck injury diagnosis and other relevant details leading up to the surgery that took place on Friday.