Pronger’s Health, Dominance Great Signs for Soaring Flyers
There were a number of question marks surrounding the Philadelphia Flyers heading into the 2011-12 season. How would the team make up for the scoring lost with the trades of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter? Would goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov be able to handle the goaltending duties in a pressure cooker-type atmosphere of a hockey-crazed city? How would a roster that was so close to a Stanley Cup championship two years earlier handle the addition of so many rookies and new faces at forward?
But perhaps the most important question relating to the success of this year’s version of the Flyers dealt with the health of their veteran blueliner, Chris Pronger. Would his surgically-repaired back be ready for the start of the season, and if so, how well would he be expected to perform?
If the first five games of the season are any indication, it could end up being a banner year for both Pronger and the Flyers.
The 6′ 6″, 220-pound defenseman is playing some of his best hockey since his arrival in the City of Brotherly Love in the summer of 2009.
Pronger plowed through an injury-riddled 2010-11 campaign, suffering four major battle wounds that each required surgery to repair. He had microscopic surgery on his right knee during the summer of 2010 and was shelved for the first two contests of the regular season. In December, he suffered a broken right foot when he blocked a slap shot in Montreal, then a broken bone in his right hand while blocking a shot on February 24 against the New York Islanders.
After seeing action in the next four games, Pronger underwent surgery and would miss the remainder of the regular season.
He returned in Game 6 of the first round against the Buffalo Sabres, playing sparingly. He saw just 4:33 of ice time, playing exclusively on the power play. He still couldn’t grip the stick tight enough to actually shoot the puck, so he planted himself in front of the Buffalo net in an attempt to screen Ryan Miller.
Pronger saw significantly more TOI in Game 7 of that series, as well as Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Boston Bruins, before being shelved for good with a herniated disc in his back.
The Flyers fizzled in the four-game sweep at the hands of the Bruins. One thing that was underscored by Pronger’s absence – not only in the playoffs, but also during the season - was the club’s failure to attain success without their key defender in the lineup.
The defense was plagued by bad turnovers and coverage issues. Opposing forwards roamed freely in front of the Flyers’ net without fear of repercussion of Pronger clearing them out. The once-potent power play was rendered virtually ineffective without the threat of Pronger’s booming shot from the point.
He underwent surgery to correct the problem, and it was unclear to everyone – Pronger included – just how long his recovery time would be.
There was another issue to explore for both the Flyers and Pronger. With Richards being traded to the Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia was without a captain.
Most of the Philadelphia media perceived a big rift between Pronger and the former-Flyers captain, but the defenseman was very understanding about the task that Richards faced.
“Mike (Richards) was a young captain with a lot to learn,” Pronger said. “I was in his exact same shoes 15 years ago when I got to St. Louis, and I had the captaincy thrust on me there. You have to learn an awful lot as a young captain, and a lot of times you’re just learning how to play the game the proper way, and how to go about playing hockey as opposed to dealing with media and fans and the scrutiny, and the fame and fortune and all the rest of that. It can be difficult.”
Pronger said he had a brief discussion with Paul Holmgren when he came to Philly over the summer for rehabilitation on his back.
“I came in at the end of July to see the doctor about my wrist and back,” he said in a September conference call. “We had touched on it briefly, and I think Lavi (coach Peter Laviolette) was here at the time, and we just kind of had a little conversation.”
But Pronger knew that he would have to be healthy enough to be the player he was expected to be in order to be looked upon as a team leader.
“I said right now I’ve got bigger fish to fry. I needed to focus on getting myself healthy and back to where I need to be to be able to play the way you want me to play. If you do indeed want me to be the captain, I need to play the way I play for me to be effective.”
There was little doubt as to who would lead the Flyers. On September 16, Pronger was named the 18th captain in team history.
While happy to have the honor, he said it wasn’t going to change a thing. “I think you have to be who you are and play the way you’ve always played,” Pronger said. “Whether you have a letter on your jersey or not – if you’re a leader, lead.”
He missed almost all of training camp and played in just one exhibition contest, September 29 against the New Jersey Devils in the Flyers last home game of the preseason. Pronger understandably looked rusty in the 2-1 loss, but the fact that he played 19:35 was a good sign.
After sitting out the exhibition finale in New Jersey, many wondered if the new captain would be ready for the regular season.
Pronger not only played on opening night in Boston, he led Philadelphia in ice time in the 2-1 victory.
As a matter of fact, he would lead all Flyers skaters in TOI in four of the first five contests, and is averaging in the neighborhood of 23 minutes per contest.
It’s no coincidence the club has gotten off to a 4-0-1 start heading into their showdown tonight with the 5-0 Washington Capitals in South Philly.
The 37-year-old has posted at least one point in every game, totaling a goal and five assists. Pronger’s lone goal came against the Vancouver Canucks in the Flyers home opener last Wednesday via a howitzer from the point on the power play.
Philadelphia’s man advantage unit, which looked so terrible last year – mostly due to Pronger’s absence - is once again clicking on all cylinders.
With Claude Giroux and Jaromir Jagr controlling the puck down low, Wayne Simmonds crashing the net, rookie Matt Read on the right point, Pronger’s presence makes all the difference.
They are a red hot 7-18 (38.9 %) in the last three games, and 8-30 (26.7 %) for the season. It’s very early in the year, but that’s quite an improvement from last season’s dreadful 16.6%.
With the massive amount of change the team underwent in the offseason, Pronger has been looked upon as one of the uniting forces in fostering a team chemistry. He also sees the value of each member of the team.
“Everybody that comes in that locker room, wears the jersey and wears that Flyer emblem, they’ve done something to impress upon somebody that they’re going to provide something that our team needs,” the captain surmised.
And as to what it will take for this Flyers team to achieve the ultimate success that it is so desperately striving for, Pronger knows the exact recipe.
“It takes everbody wanting to buy into the system and be professional, come ready to play and come ready to practice, be in shape, and be focused on the game,” he said in the September conference call. “Our careers are very short, some shorter than others, and you have to take every opportunity you can to win championships.”
If Pronger can remain healthy, and he and his teammates keep playing the way they have in the early going, they may just have an opportunity to challenge for a championship next spring.