Flyers Will Have To Proceed As If Pronger Is Never Returning

By David Strehle
NHL H
ot Stove Managing Editor

The devastating news was reported early Thursday evening by Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos via Twitter, and confirmed by the team later during the first period of last night’s Philadelphia Flyers contest in Montreal — the club’s top defenseman and team captain, Chris Pronger, will miss the remainder of the regular season and playoffs due to severe post-concussion symptoms.

(Photo credit: Paul Bereswill / Getty Images)

It’s just another hard dose of adversity for the Eastern Conference-leaders, especially for their beleaguered blueline.

Already missing Erik Gustafsson (wrist surgery) and Andreas Lilja (high ankle sprain) for several weeks, Peter Laviolette has had to juggle defensive pairings for some time. The big four of Matt Carle (Pronger’s usual defensive partner), Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, and Andrej Meszaros have been eating up a ton of minutes, with AHL call ups Marc-Andre Bourdon and Kevin Marshall also seeing time.

Philadelphia’s injury predicament is becoming more worrisome with each passing game, and concussions are at the top of the list. In addition to Pronger, Claude Giroux, the NHL’s leading scorer, and youngster Brayden Schenn, acquired from Los Angeles in the Mike Richards deal, remain out indefinitely with head injuries.

While only time will tell how these players fare in hopes of a return, the question for now becomes what will Paul Holmgren do now that Pronger is officially done until at least next fall, if he is able to return at all.

The Flyers are buying their GM some extra time because they simply refuse to lose. Even with all of their injury woes, the team defeated the Montreal Canadiens, 4-3 at Bell Centre last night, running their current winning streak to seven games. This is a huge development, because there is no reason for Holmgren to get sucked into making any type of a panic move.

There’s no doubt that the excellent results in recent games are helping in the club’s decision-making process as to exactly what to do with their next move. With both Gustafsson and Lilja set to return sometime early in the New Year, and Matt Walker another option as a healthy body, Philadelphia could make do with their current roster.

Burning The Candle At Both Ends

The exhorbitant amount of ice time being logged by the big four has to eventually become a concern for team management.

  • Timonen played a game-high 26:36 last night, with 8:03 of that time on ice in shorthanded situations. The other three ranged from 22:53 (Meszaros) to 24:21 (Coburn). Conversely, Bourdon was on for 10:48, and Marshall just 4:42.
  • Tuesday night in Washington, Carle logged a game-high 25:27, while the three played between 21:39 (Meszaros), and 23:14 (Coburn). Carle’s TOI in the first period alone that night was 10:13, or better than half the frame. Lucky for the Flyers that they had a big lead and were able to give Bourdon (16:29) and Marshall (10:17) more minutes when the outcome was no longer in doubt, allowing the fab four to rest down the stretch.
  • Carle also played 26:27 last Thursday at home against Pittsburgh, and 27:44 the previous night in Buffalo. Coburn also churned out a gruelling 25:48 against the Sabres that night.
  • Coburn logged 28:03 against the New York Rangers at MSG in late-November. Timonen saw 24:28, and Carle had the least amount of TOI at 22:14.

That’s a ton of ice time for all four, especially Timonen, who is constantly banged up. The physical pounding is definitely taking a toll, and Philly will need the soon to be 37-year-old Finn to be fresh when the postseason commences if they want to have any kind of shot at a deep run.

Looking at the numbers Laviolette seems to be, for the most part, rotating the member of the group that will log the most ice time, thereby avoiding a complete burn out of any one defenseman.

So far, it’s working pretty well, but the long-term affects could prove costly down the road.

(Photo credit: Photo by Jim McIsaac / Getty Images North America)

Other Possibilities At Home

Gustafsson’s return should help to lighten the load somewhat, and will signal Marshall’s departure to Adirondack. Bourdon has been solid since his recall from the Phantoms, but his ice time ranges anywhere from 10-16 minutes, dependant upon how close of a contest the Flyers find themselves. Lilja was just starting to become more reliable when he was hurt, so Bourdon may stick around a bit when both Gustafsson and Lilja are back. Just in case.

Walker remains an enigma in Philadelphia. Having to bring him back through re-entry waivers and taking the risk of another club claiming him and leaving the Flyers footing $875,000 (pro-rated) of his contract, it’s strange that he hasn’t dressed for a game since clearing.

Oskars Bartulis played well when he got into the lineup last season before a shoulder injury, and looked to be in the team’s plan for this year. But after being sent to Adirondack before the end of training camp, the 24-year-old native of Latvia would have to clear re-entry waivers. With the probability of another club claiming him, Bartulis will almost certainly be relegated to the Phantoms all year long.

Who Will Holmgren Consider in Trade?

If Holmgren decides to go the trade route, let the Shea Weber-to-the-Flyers rumors begin. Having won an unprecedented $7.5 million arbitration award this past summer and set to become a restricted free agent at season’s end, Nashville may not be able to afford their captain and he may end up on the trading block.

He’s one of the most complete defenders in the entire League, and would most certainly attract interest from Philadelphia – especially with the uncertainty of Pronger’s situation. He’s a right-handed shot, something (other than Walker) the Flyers’ defense does not possess at this time. Weber also plays a physical game, and brings a booming, heavy shot that would aid the power play.

In other words, he could be the perfect fit.

While fitting his contract within the club’s salary cap limit this season may be within the realm of possibility (depending on who goes the other way), his asking price moving forward will likely be the killing point for the Flyers. With what will end up being Nashville’s asking price — young players off the current roster as a starter, no doubt — and the likelihood that he could end up being a rental player, Weber isn’t a probable candidate. But you can still prepare yourself for the barrage of never-ending rumors sure to be attached to this storyline.

(Photo credit: Frederick Breedon / Getty Images North America)

Another Predator’s blueliner could be a possibility. Ryan Suter stands to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, and if GM David Poile decides to make sure Weber stays, he likely will not have enough money left to sign Suter.

That’s not to say that the Preds are at the cap ceiling, because they’re not even close. At $48.6 million — or just above the mandatory $48.3 million cap floor – Nashville owns the lowest payroll in the NHL. Their restrictions are related to the club’s budget, and Suter is in the last year of a $3.5 million deal.  He will be expecting a hefty raise and with the recent contract inked to keep goaltender Pekka Rinne from testing free agency (his current $3.4 million deal becomes a $7 million salary next year), Suter will probably be dealt prior to the trade deadline.

Stop Gaps

Both Weber and Suter are more on the high-end of the line of defenders, and another of Holmgren’s options would be to get a stop gap guy — likely a veteran presence, a la Sean O’Donnell last season — to be able to log a decent amount of ice time.

Teams that are falling well below the eighth spot in each conference may well be looking to deal a blueliner at some point. Depending on how Ottawa fares over the next two months, Sergei Gonchar (signed through next year at $5.5 million annually) may be available. Many remember how effective he was playing with a group of offensive players in Pittsburgh — especially on the power play – but he also has a tremendous amount of downside. He will turn 38 years old by the time the playoffs begin, has a gigantic contract, and has missed a significant amount of games over the last four years due to his body breaking down. Holmgren would be wise to stay away from Gonchar.

The same rings true for Tampa Bay (Brett Clark — $1.5 million, UFA after this year), Carolina (Jaroslav Spacek — $3.833 million, UFA after this year), Calgary (Scott Hannan — $1 million, UFA after this year), and Anaheim (Toni Lydman — signed through next year at $3 million annually). All may be looking to make changes in the next couple of months, and Holmgren could end up finding a trade partner.

Of this group, only Hannan should be a consideration. He is strictly a defensive defenseman, but he blocks a lot of shots and would help in shutdown situations.

Built More For the Longer Haul

The Flyers would be wise to proceed as if they know Pronger will not return at all, and pick up a defender who will not only be around the rest of this season and next, but for the next several years, as well — especially considering Carle is scheduled to become an UFA next summer, with Timonen’s contract expiring the following year.

Some players of interest that may become available if their respective teams fall out of the playoff hunt:

  • Marc-Andre Bergeron (TB — signed through next year at $1 million annually) is a smaller option but is decent in the defensive end, and has a heavy point shot that would help take away the sting of Pronger’s absence on the power play.
  • Travis Hamonic (NYI — signed through next year to entry level deal at $875,000 annually) is just 21 years old and plays a robust style of game. He plays the PP, hits, and gets involved physically. He racked up over 100 PIMs as a rookie last year and after a slow start this season, has been playing better of late. With his age and potential, Hamonic probably won’t be available, but this is the Islanders we’re taling about. Anything is possible.
  • Milan Jurcina (NYI — $1.6 million, UFA after this year) is an interesting case. Though he didn’t find a home in Boston or Washington and is on a sometimes very bad New York club, the 28-year-old could be attractive to Holmgren. He has great size (6′ 4″, 253 pounds) and tools to excel in the League. His motivation is often in question, but much the same was said about another native of Slovakia currently on the Flyers’ roster — Meszaros — and he’s working out pretty well right now.

Bergeron and Jurcina would come much cheaper than the Weber and Suter options. Hamonic would, also, but would cost Holmgren at least a young roster player.

There is no reason to say anything will actually happen in the trade arena in Philadelphia, at least not for the time being. The team continues to win, so there is nothing even close to an air of panic within the Flyers’ organization.

Over the next couple of seasons, there is the possibility that a Brandon Manning or Colin Suellentrop or another prosepect in the system will be ready to make the big club.

It never hurts to plan ahead. So maybe the best course of action at the moment would be to not count on Pronger coming back at all, and maybe make a couple of deals for the future, as long as the young assets and current team chemistry are not compromised.

If Pronger does eventually come back next season, it would just be icing on the cake.


If you have any comments or questions, you can email the author at dstrehle@nhlhotstove.com.  You can also follow him on Twitter – @David_Strehle