Philadelphia's preseason kicks off tonight with the first half of a home-and-home against the Maple Leafs in Toronto.
Philadelphia's roster has undergone a major overhaul since being swept out of the second round of the playoffs by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins, and tonight is the first chance for fans to get a look at Jaromir Jagr, Ilya Bryzgalov and all the new Flyers.
Even with all the changes, the most important player on the team is still Chris Pronger. Pronger, officially named the 18th captain in franchise history last week, is in the process of recovering from four surgeries over the past year, the most recent to his back.
The 6'6", 36-year-old defenseman skated with the team Monday for the first time since the early playoff exit and subsequent surgeries, and is not expected in the lineup for the foreseeable future, but the organization is hopeful Pronger is on target to play opening night, Oct. 6 in Boston.
While the general consensus regarding Pronger is the rehabilitation is working and he will be back at full strength for the long haul, concerns surrounding his health persist.
Entering his 18th year in the league, Pronger will turn 37 in less than a month. Playing in only 53 games including the postseason in 2010-11, many wonder how much the grizzled veteran has left in the tank.
Pronger's effect on the game, when healthy, is unquestionable. But given his recent history as well as the contractual and captaincy commitments made to him, the responsibility Pronger carries this season is greater than any other in his career.
With that said, here are the FIVE reasons Pronger's health could make or break the 2011-12 Philadelphia Flyers.
Since former captain Mike Richards' departure to Los Angeles the Flyers have acknowledged what most fans already knew: No matter who was wearing the "C" on his sweater, Chris Pronger was and is the locker room leader in Philadelphia.
But now it's official. Pronger is the 18th captain in franchise history. Despite the roster turnover, this Flyers team's expectations are as high as possible. This team is held to the standard of Stanley Cup or bust every year, and blockbuster trades which sent away the faces of the franchise do not change those expectations for the most intimidating fans or most intimidating front office in hockey (Seriously, just look at Paul Holmgren and Ed Snider; they're scary dudes.).
The captaincy in Philadelphia has a tradition of defining a player's time in the city. Pronger now bears the responsibility for the third time in his career, previously captaining the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks.
While the Flyers' success has depended on the production of its hard-nosed defenseman the previous two seasons, this year, even greater emphasis will be put on what Pronger brings to the team.
No Flyers fan can forget the disappointing captaincies of Derian Hatcher or Peter Forsberg. Hatcher took the C from an injured Keith Primeau, and the questions of leadership bogged the team down. In an attempt to right the ship the next season, Forsberg was named captain, and his health issues prevented him from contributing on the ice, which in turn, nullified any leadership he could have brought the team.
If Pronger misses substantial time this season, the high expectations for this young team could be a lot to overcome. While Kimmo Timonen and Danny Briere, the alternate captains, have experience with the "C" in Nashville and Buffalo, respectively, the media attention paid to "Who's the true captain?" and "Will Pronger wear the "C" when he comes back?" will be enough of a distraction to hurt this young team's progress and the eventual accomplishment of their goals.
The Flyers are going the win with defense and goaltending.
While the offense has plenty of promise and several potential All-Stars, the numbers say the Flyers have not replaced what they gave up with equal production. The hope is the strength of the defense playing in front of an All-Star caliber goaltender will make up for what was lost in Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Kris Versteeg, Nik Zherdev and Ville Leino.
The defense certainly is stacked with talent. But without Pronger, the group loses quite a bit of its luster. Kimmo Timonen is an under-sized warrior. He plays every game hard and will sacrifice his body for the team on every shift. But at 5'10" and 194 pounds and 36 years of age, questions about what he has left are warranted, as well.
Without Pronger, Timonen becomes the No. 1 defenseman. Last season, Pronger only averaged one second (22:29 vs 22:28) of ice-time more than Timonen. But if Pronger misses a month or more, Timonen could see 25-30 minutes per night. Given that much ice-time, it would not be a surprise to see the All-Star from Finland ware down by the playoffs. Call it Eric Desjardins-syndrome.
Matt Carle is also under-sized at 6-feet 200 pounds. Carle, Pronger's traditional D-partner, has progressed by leaps and bounds since his acquisition from Tampa Bay in 2008. The 27-year-old's 39 assists and 40 points lead Philadelphia defensemen in 2010-11 but without the physical element Pronger brings to their line, it will be hard for Carle to duplicate such production.
Andrej Meszaros was the Flyers' best blue-liner in 2010-11. The 25-year-old native of Slovakia tied Matt Carle for a team best plus-30 rating and was the only Flyer capable of picking up the physical play in Pronger's absence. His heavy shot helped him contribute on the power play, but Meszaros lacks the experience and complete offensive game Pronger brings to the table.
While the top four defensemen could sustain a high level of play in Pronger's absence, the fifth and sixth guys would be left exposed. One need not look further than Sean O'Donnell for proof. O'Donnell played exceptionally well at the onset of 2010-11, leading the league in plus/minus and playing alongside Meszaros on the Flyers' third defensive unit.
But as Pronger missed more and more time, more was asked of all the defensemen, and as O'Donnell's ice time increased, his play declined. O'Donnell finished plus-eight for the season and was visibly less effective than he was before the New Year.
Andreas Lilja is expected to play the role O'Donnell vacated. As another 36-year-old, Lilja will need the players in front of him on the depth chart to stay healthy so he can play an effective sixth defenseman role without being exposed. At 6'3" and 220, pounds Lilja has a role on this team, but too much ice time will reveal to the fans and the whole league where the deficiencies on the Philadelphia blue line lie.
Philadelphia's power play struggled mightily in 2010-11. The Flyers finished 19th in the NHL in power play percentage, converting only 16.6 percent of its man-up opportunities. While the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins finished 20th at 16.2 percent, a roster boasting the likes of Danny Briere and Claude Giroux has to improve on the man advantage.
Enter Jaromir Jagr. Jagr was brought to Philadelphia to sure up the power play in light of the losses of Richards and Carter. While Jagr is 39 years old, he will be expected to put the puck in the net on the power play. The reason he chose Philly was because he saw Giroux and Briere as better matches to his skill set on the power play than Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh.
But an effective power play needs effective blue-liners. While Meszaros, Timonen and Carle are serviceable power play defensemen, nobody brings all the elements of Chris Pronger.
Pronger is recognized as one of the best break out passers in the league, and his long lead passes out of the defensive zone put the offense on the attack and force the defense to back up, allowing the offense to set up its man advantage sets.
Only Meszaros can match the heavy shot Pronger brings from the blue line, and the captain's great ice vision allow him to fake the shot and find open teammates down low as well as unleash a slapper despite being backed right up against the blue line. His veteran savvy and leeway with officials (hockey is a game of respect and Pronger has earned it) allow for favorable keep calls for pucks that may or may not have escaped the offensive zone.
Despite the Flyers' offensive talent and power play specialists, Chris Pronger will have the greatest say in the success of the power play, and to the same effect, whether or not the Jagr signing was sheer genius or just another classic Flyers move, acquiring a former superstar well past his prime.
For the first time in my life, the Flyers have their No. 1 goalie. It's been a long and embarrassing road, as year after year, the Flyers are loaded with talent and ultimately let down by mediocre goaltending or are unable to match or overcome an opponent's netminder standing on his head.
But finally, Ilya Bryzgalov is here, sporting a nine-year $51 million contract. The 31-year-old Russian comes to Philadelphia from Phoenix after posting 36 victories and a .921 save percentage over 2100 minutes in 2010-11.
But like the Flyers, Bryzgalov's season ended with a disappointing sweep. Losing in the first round to Detroit, Bryzgalov's performance left much to be desired, as he posted a 4.36 GAA and .879 save percentage in the four game beating by the Detroit Red Wings.
Bryzgalov's potential is there, but if the Flyers do not play strong defense in front of their new goalie, the potential will remain only potential.
Pronger, as the captain and No. 1 defenseman, is charged with the responsibility of keeping Bryzgalov clean and keeping his vision clear. Without Pronger, the Flyers' defense will be overmatched in front of the net, as the top power forwards in the league will take advantage of the undersized Matt Carle and Kimmo Timonen. Braydon Coburn has the unique ability to look like an All-Star and a bum within the same game, and even the same shift. Coburn has the size but often struggles to use it to his benefit.
Considering the importance for a quick start for the Flyers, and the need for Bryzgalov to live up to the hype of a $50 million contract, Pronger's presence in front of the paint will be the key to the goalie/savior's success.
Chris Pronger is an "over the top piece." He's the type of player a team looking for the last puzzle piece to become a legitimate Cup contender adds to their roster. Pronger has led the Edmonton Oilers, Anaheim Ducks and Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals, winning the championship with the Ducks in 2007, as well as Olympic Gold medals in 2002 and 2010 with Team Canada.
Fans remember his impact during the Flyers Cup run in 2010 and how listless the team looked without him in 2011.
Pronger was brought to the City of Brotherly Love to win a Cup. Pronger was given the captaincy because of his experience and postseason success. He is the leader of the Flyers on and off the ice, and it would be impossible for this team to reach their ultimate goal without him.
Pronger's health will be of the utmost concern because it became clear last year this team is not close to the same without him. Pronger played in only three of 11 playoff games last year, and if that percentage is repeated in 2012, the Flyers will not win the Stanley Cup, extending the franchise's streak to 37 consecutive disappointing seasons.
His importance in the defensive corps, the defensive zone, on special teams and in the locker room will be magnified during the "second season," which is historically where Pronger proves most important to his team.
Injuries are a part of hockey, and Pronger has averaged 68 games played over the past 17 seasons, including 10 seasons in which he played at least 75 regular season games. But now, with 1,154 regular season games and another 173 playoff games under his belt and four surgeries inside of 12 months, Pronger's durability must be a concern of all Flyers fans heading into the new season.
If the Philadelphia Flyers are to win the Stanley Cup in 2012, it will be due, at least in part, to the leadership and production of Chris Pronger. However, if the season ends once again in disappointment and Pronger is again injured or considering retirement as he inches towards 40 years of age, once again, the Flyers will be left without a Cup, and all that will remain is the need for another new captain, not to mention a stud, puck-moving defenseman.
Sound familiar, Flyers fans?