With the start of NHL training camps right around the corner, there is understandably a great deal of concern among Philadelphia Flyers fans about defenseman Chris Pronger's health. The Flyers blueliner underwent four surgeries last season to repair his foot, his hand (twice) and a bulging disc in his back.
The good news for Flyers fans is that in a recent interview, Pronger stated that he's feeling better and is on-track in his recovery. The bad news is that he hasn't begun his offseason weight-lifting and intensive conditioning program yet due to the fact that his hand is not yet 100 percent.
If these setbacks continue, what could Pronger's slow recovery mean for the Philadelphia Flyers and their Stanley Cup chances in the 2011-12 NHL season?
Team Chemistry & Attitude
The first area of concern for Flyers fans must be team chemistry. While it is certainly true that Pronger's presence and impact on the ice will be missed, it is also true that his greatest value may be his ability to unite a locker room. Pronger's presence and leadership in the locker room will be even more important for the new-look Flyers in 2011-12, as the team traded away many of their core pieces during the offseason.
Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Ville Leino, Kris Versteeg, Sean O'Donnell, Darroll Powe, Dan Carcillo, Nikolay Zherdev and Brian Boucher all are no longer members of the Flyers. Their leadership—especially that of Richards, Carter, Leino, O'Donnell and Boucher—will be difficult to replace. A healthy Pronger in the Flyers dressing room would go a long way toward filling that void.
If Pronger is unable to play for the first month or so of the season, it is possible that negativity, division and ill-will could all fester. Head coach Peter Laviolette's abrasive style has been known to wear on players, especially those unaccustomed to rough treatment. Emerging young superstars Claude Giroux and James van Reimsdyk may struggle to handle the pressure of being franchise players, just as Mike Richards and Jeff Carter did.
All of these issues are resolved or minimized by Pronger's presence in the Flyers locker room. He is a determined, team-first leader who accepts nothing short of victory from himself and his teammates. He does not tolerate division in a locker room or animosity between teammates and works to resolve it immediately.
Pronger understands Laviolette and is able to help other players to do the same. Furthermore, Pronger understands what it means to be young franchise cornerstone and how to successfully deal with the pressure such a title brings.
It's no secret that a healthy Chris Pronger is still one of the best defenseman in the NHL. Even at 37, Pronger is still able to eliminate a great many of his teammates' mistakes, disrupt opposing teams' odd-man rushes and shut down the best players in the league.
Following all of their offseason moves, the Flyers are one of the youngest teams up front in the NHL, with at least five of their top nine forwards age 23 or younger. Its to be expected that these younger players will make mistakes—especially mistakes in the defensive zone. Having Pronger on the back end to minimize those errors will be a key to the team's success, especially early on in the season.
The Power Play
Anyone who watched the Philadelphia Flyers during the 2011 NHL Playoffs saw the difference in the team's power play when Pronger was on the ice. Even at his age, he may still be the best PP quarterback in the NHL, bar none. He has a cannon for a shot, is cool under pressure and has superb vision and passing ability with the puck.
After all of the changes made by the Flyers this offseason, the power play will be even more important, especially early in the season. A healthy Pronger can transform an otherwise mediocre power play into a deadly unit overnight.
For a Flyers team that may struggle to score goals in the early going, being able to regularly convert on the power play could provide a tremendous boost and help get the offense into a groove. The faster the team can find its groove offensively, the more likely it is the Flyers will contend for an Atlantic Division title and a more favorable first-round playoff matchup.
A dangerous power play also means opposing teams will have to think twice before engaging in questionable defensive tactics. The 2011-12 Flyers figure to be a much bigger, faster and stronger team up front. That should enable them to win battles along the boards, maintain good position in front of the net and force opponents to permit scoring chances rather than take penalties.
It all boils down to this: if the Flyers' power play is among the most deadly in the NHL, opposing teams will be less able to prevent the Flyers forwards from generating quality scoring chances. The more scoring chances the Flyers can generate, the more likely it is that some of them will wind up in the back of the net.
And the more time the Flyers can spend on the attack, the less time opponents have to generate scoring chances of their own.
All of this, of course, hinges on the return of an effective Chris Pronger to the lineup.