As the hockey world becomes drawn into the tumult of real-deal negotiations, the prospect of a 2012-13 season seems to be turning into a reality. With the new year on the horizon, the Philadelphia Flyers begin the process of evaluating the team's strengths and weaknesses.
One of the franchise's pressing questions is the status of team captain Chris Pronger, who missed most of the 2011-12 campaign with post-concussion issues and has been rumored to be on the verge of retirement, though GM Paul Holmgren has brushed the notion aside (via NBC Sports).
Pronger is a critical key for the Flyers as his role goes beyond merely manning his position in the defensive zone.
Here are five reasons why Chris Pronger's presence could be the difference between a Stanley Cup run and an early playoff exit for the Flyers.
Pronger's injury dealt a heavy blow to last year's Flyers squad, and the injury curse has already reared its ugly head towards Philadelphia in 2012.
During the offseason, Andrej Meszaros suffered an Achilles tendon injury that required surgery, a procedure that could keep Meszaros out for the entire season.
Meszaros is a physical force and an offensive threat, and the team's blue line loses an important part of its game as long as Meszaros stays off the ice. His role could easily be filled by Pronger, even if Pronger cannot be the player he was when he first arrived in Philadelphia.
Pronger's heavy shot, reliable positioning and brute physicality could, in some ways, be an upgrade over Meszaros. Without Pronger, the Flyers' defense will be rounded out by players who don't have the same level of experience and energy that Pronger and Meszaros can bring.
By trading James van Riemsdyk to acquire Toronto's Luke Schenn, the Flyers made defense a priority.
Unfortunately, Schenn's availability and relatively inexpensive price tag came as a result of his stunted growth in a Leafs uniform. Paul Holmgren is hoping that a change of scenery gets Schenn back on track to being a defensive stalwart.
Chris Pronger would be a near-perfect mentor for Schenn. Schenn might be paired with Kimmo Timonen, but Timonen's game is distinctly different from Schenn. Timonen is an undersized puck-mover, while Schenn is a big-bodied, stay-at-home defenseman.
If Schenn has Pronger as a mentor instead of Timonen, he would learn more about how to effectively use his body. Schenn is one of the most prominent hitters in hockey, but his lack of tact gets him out of position too frequently.
Pronger could be the catalyst for a big leap forward in Schenn's maturation.
It's no secret that goaltending is a concern for the Flyers. In fact, goaltending is always a concern for the Flyers.
This season, the Flyers are looking for their $51 million goalie to bounce back from a decidedly average inaugural campaign in Philadelphia that featured a .909 save percentage and 2.48 goals against average.
The turnaround will require Ilya Bryzgalov to compose himself, but the team will also have to improve in front of him. In order for Bryz to find his mojo, the Flyers' defense needs to give him all the help they can provide.
Chris Pronger is among the best in NHL history at clearing the crease. The Flyers need that muscle to give Bryzgalov a clear sight line to the puck. Likewise, getting physical with opposing forwards makes it that much harder for rebounds to become goals.
The holes on defense and questions in the crease are scary prospects for the Flyers in 2012-13, but the return of Pronger would soften the effect of those weaknesses in a significant way.
As a result of the questions in net, the Flyers' defense is heavily structured to focus around its own net. Offensive defenseman Matt Carle was allowed to walk in the offseason, and Kimmo Timonen's age indicates that his numbers will likely decline in 2012-13.
Luke Schenn, Braydon Coburn and Nicklas Grossmann make up three of the team's top four defensemen, all of whom are far more useful in preventing goals than scoring them.
The Flyers will miss the point production that can come from the blue line unless Chris Pronger makes a return. Pronger is well known for his heavy slapshot, a shot that could produce numerous deflection and rebound opportunities for players like Scott Hartnell and Wayne Simmonds in front of the net.
The Flyers' offense should be able to hold its own, but when an opposing defense succeeds in shutting down the top line, effective shooting from the point can be enough to pull out the win.
The Flyers have plenty of leadership waiting in the wings. Claude Giroux seems destined to be captain one day, Brayden Schenn showed that he can be an on-ice leader in the playoffs, and veterans like Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen have all worn the "A" or the "C" at some point in their careers.
Still, Pronger was the undisputed voice in the locker room. No player on the Flyers roster is more equipped to be a leader than Chris Pronger. Giroux is still young and needs to mature, as evidenced by his headshot on Dainius Zubrus that earned him a suspension for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Timonen's age and the fact that this is a contract year begs the question of whether or not he will be a Flyer for much longer. Briere had an abysmal regular season in 2011-12, and the team cannot afford to see him disappear if he is supposed to be Philly's captain.
Pronger's return would bring stability to a team that needs to iron out its leadership structure. He would provide an example for Giroux to follow and allow the future face of the franchise valuable years to mature.
Pronger's health, of course, comes first. But if the captain can lace up the skates again, the team will benefit on all parts of the ice and, most importantly, in the locker room.