Losing your team captain is never a good thing.
Thursday night, Flyers GM Paul Holmgren announced that defenseman and captain Chris Pronger would miss the remainder of the regular season and postseason with post-concussion syndrome, permanently sidelining the biggest player on the team’s roster less than three months after he was named the franchise’s 18th captain.
Pronger is a pivotal part of the Flyers, especially given the young, impressionable nature of the team. The captain’s attitude and drive to win were expected to mold players like Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier and James van Riemsdyk in a fashion entirely different than the work hard/play hard style that Mike Richards brought.
Things were looking up for the Flyers when Pronger recovered from offseason knee surgery in time to start the regular season. It appeared that the captain would be at the helm for the entirety of 2011-12.
Through the 29 games the team played before Thursday’s announcement, Pronger only played in 13.
A freak eye injury was followed by knee surgery, an apparent virus and, ultimately, symptoms of post-concussion syndrome.
The Forsberg Factor
The revelation that Pronger absolutely will not play in the 2011-12 season is almost a relief, in a sense.
In 2006-07, Flyers captain Peter Forsberg found himself in and out of the lineup with foot issues as he tried to recover from offseason surgery on his right ankle.
Forsberg’s inability to be in the lineup night-in and night-out had a detrimental effect on the young core of the Flyers, including Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
The issue wasn’t necessarily that they were playing without their captain; it was that the unpredictable nature of Forsberg’s injuries made it impossible for the Flyers to establish a team identity.
They were not really Forsberg’s team, but they weren’t anyone else’s team, either.
After February, when Forsberg was traded to Nashville for Ryan Parent, Scottie Upshall and a first-round pick, the Flyers played much better hockey, because younger players could step into Forsberg’s role.
They may not have been as effective as a healthy Forsberg, but the situation was better than not knowing whether or not the captain would be in the mix on a nightly basis.
In 2011-12, the Flyers again find themselves with a young team and a captain who (through no fault of his own) cannot be depended upon to be on the ice each game.
For these impressionable teams, not knowing their captains’ fates can cause the team to rely too heavily on the assumption that the season is on hold until that player returns.
Once a team knows for sure that they are without their captain, they lower their heads and power through the season.
For these Flyers, there is an unwritten assumption that the team needs Chris Pronger to be healthy to win in the playoffs, which means there would be an aura of concern if the playoffs approached and his status was unknown. Now, the team needs to rethink how to win entirely.
And that is precisely why they can now succeed.
An Open Roster Spot
The other reason Pronger’s move to LTIR benefits the Flyers is financial.
If Pronger spent the season rehabbing and re-injuring himself, the team’s six defensemen would be some combination of Pronger (sometimes), Timonen, Meszaros, Coburn, Carle and Lilja/Gustafsson/Bourdon/Marshall (depending on injuries).
With Pronger done for the season, he is no longer in the mix on the roster or on payroll. So the defense is Timonen, Meszaros, Coburn and Carle, with two spots open for lesser players.
Because Pronger’s $4.9 million cap hit no longer works against Philadelphia, the team officially has a spot on defense open for a defenseman that doesn’t have to come from the minor leagues.
Nashville has been the center of attention this year, starting the season with three big free agents. Goaltender Pekka Rinne and defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter were all set to hit the market, and the popular belief is that Nashville does not have room to sign all three.
Rinne inked a seven-year, $49 million deal last month, leaving Nashville with a virtual coin flip between defensemen. Unless the team becomes a major playoff contender in the next two months, they’ll be looking to shop one of the two impending free agents.
And if Philadelphia stays strong in the East, they’ll be looking to buy.
The Flyers cannot get through the playoffs on a defense with two players that are going to have their minutes limited; during the 2009 Cup run, Laviolette gave heavy ice time to Pronger, Timonen, Coburn and Carle and it wore on the players.
The Flyers will need at least one more strong blueliner to be a legitimate threat, and Pronger’s presence on LTIR is a blessing in disguise.
Rather than being stuck between the rock and hard place that is hoping Pronger doesn’t get hurt again or hoping the team doesn’t need to do a salary dump because of the abundance of highly skilled defensemen, Paul Holmgren’s decision has been made for him.
And as luck would have it, there is a team out there that almost has to get rid of a defenseman, whose contract runs out at the end of this year.
Thus, if Pronger’s injury appears to be career-threatening, the Flyers would have the initial rights to sign Suter/Weber before free agency begins. If Pronger seems like he could come back, therefore hindering the Flyers' chances of affording another defenseman, they could let him go (or even better, trade his rights for draft picks).
Moving Forward Toward the Cup
Regardless of how the Flyers deal with Pronger’s absence, Thursday’s announcement was relieving if only because it rid the team of the distraction that was his health.
The team is still winning without Pronger, sitting atop the Eastern Conference. The team is still scoring goals, and the defense doesn’t look half-bad for a team that has seen three players on the depth chart succumb to injuries.
The goal is still a Stanley Cup, and it is now Paul Holmgren’s job to decipher how this can be achieved.
On a team as character-driven as these Flyers, the leadership will take care of itself. Young players will continue to develop, veterans will continue to set the tone on the ice, and Peter Laviolette will continue to demand more and more from his players.
Pronger status has not left the defense weak. It has not left the team unmotivated. It has not swayed the team from its goals.
It has merely left the team with a question on defense, and an opportunity to adjust the roster to put together a true powerhouse in the Eastern Conference.
We will not see Pronger on the ice again this season. But as long as we continue to see his influence, the Flyers will prevail.