Philadelphia Flyers: How Can They Withstand the Loss of Chris Pronger?
Fifteen goals in three games.
Sure, that nine-spot the Winnipeg Jets put up skews the statistics a bit, but getting outscored 15-14 over a three-game span against teams not expected to factor in the playoff picture signals a glaring lack of consistency on defense.
Shortly after Pronger's eye injury, it was speculated he would miss two to three weeks.
Coming out of the weekend, there is still no set timetable for the captain's return, as his vision remains blurred and he has yet to be cleared for even a light workout on the ice.
With Pronger's return in question, fans are quickly having flashbacks to last year's rudderless ship, and the problems that ensue when the Flyers are without Pronger.
But Saturday's 5-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes put an end to Philly's two-game slide and sent the Flyers into a much needed three-day break on a positive note. They are not scheduled to play until Wednesday in Buffalo against the Sabres, giving the "orange and black" some time to adjust to life on the ice without their top defenseman.
To overcome playing without the last defenseman since Bobby Orr to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL MVP (1972,) the Flyers must emphasize their other advantages to cover and compensate for that gaping 6'6" hole on the blue line.
The Best Defense...
Is the saying "The best offense is a good defense," or vice versa?
Whatever it is, the best way to take the pressure off of a short-handed blue line is to score early and often.
Currently Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, Jaromir Jagr and Danny Briere are averaging at least one point per game.
While it's tough to expect four players to end up with 82+ points, the Flyers, despite their offseason losses, are incredibly deep on the offensive end.
Wayne Simmonds, Jake Varacek and rookie Sean Couturier have yet to really scratch the surface of their offensive ability, and look sure to improve as they continue to build chemistry with their still new teammates.
Matt Read, recently moved to center a line between Voracek and James van Riemsdyk, has seven points, currently fourth among all rookies, and only four points behind the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (11).
The Flyers have scored 13 goals in the last two games, six of which were put in the net by Giroux, Jagr and Hartnell.
Once the depth starts to pick up its consistency, the Flyers will be an offensive force less reliant on their defense and goaltender than fans, and perhaps the front office, might have expected as recently as one month ago.
Andrej Meszaros won the Barry Ashbee Trophy in 2010-11, his first season with the Flyers, because of the way he stepped up in Pronger's absence.
Meszaros was acquired in the summer of 2010 to be the fifth defenseman, and became an instant fan favorite for his physical play, hard shot and knack for grabbing a few crucial overtime goals.
The 26 year old currently ranks fifth in time on ice amongst the Flyers blue line, with 20:27 minutes played per game.
The injury to Pronger, who averages a little over 21:02 minutes a night means an expanded role for Meszaros, whose average of 28 shifts per game is second on the Flyers to Kimmo Timonen's 29.1.
Meszaros, picked 23rd overall by the Ottawa Senators in the 2004 entry draft, is only one of the Flyers defensemen who is similar to Pronger.
At 6'2", 220 pounds, the big Slovak is a main contributor on the power play, an excellent outlet passer and a force in the middle of the ice.
In the captain's absence Meszaros's role as a physical and emotional leader becomes paramount on an otherwise undersized/old-aged blue line.
Through the first 11 games Meszaros has tallied a goal and three assists with 10 penalty minutes and a plus-1 rating.
To survive this period without Pronger, who had a goal and six assists through the eight games before his injury, and the possibility that he will miss more time than expected down the road means Meszaros must assume a leadership role in the defensive corps.
Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky
No matter whether it's the Hammer or Sickle in net, if the Flyers plan to get by without Pronger, the goaltending has to be better.
Through the first 11 games opponents are averaging 3.3 goals a night against this supposed steel curtain.
Dubbed one of the toughest goalie tandems on paper, prized free agent starter Ilya Bryzgalov and back-up Sergei Bobrovsky have both shown flashes of their potential, but they are both here because Ed Snider never wanted to worry about his team's netminder again.
These three decades of concern urged the front office to spend $51 million on Bryzgalov, despite Bobrovsky's 28 victories and .915 save perentage in his rookie season in both the NHL and North America itself.
The strong defense was put together to play in front of lesser goalies, the Bouchers and Leightons of the league, and were held more accountable because everybody knew what was behind them.
But now that the Flyers have goalies worthy of expectations, their production is being counted on, rather than seen as a bonus to whatever the very deep offense and defense are able to provide on a nightly basis.
While Pronger is the ultimate protector of the net, Bryzgalov is a perennial All-Star and Bobrovsky still has the "goalie of the future" label, although many wonder if he factors into the Flyers' long-term plans.
Pronger's absence should be a challenge for the goalies, but they were brought in to deal with those kinds of problems. Every fan has seen the worn-down defenses of the past, whether they be anchored by Kimmo Timonen or Eric Desjardins, unable to protect the goalie the way they had all year.
But this year's investment in the position should result in less of a dependence on the defense overall, meaning Pronger's injury is not as devastating to the team as it was last season.
Zac Rinaldo's return to the lineup couldn't have come at a better time.
Pronger is, before anything else, an intimidator on the ice.
Without Pronger, opponents are far more likely to take liberties against the Flyers, given their lack of a true enforcer behind the somewhat ineffective Jody Shelley.
The opposition is always leery of a blatant stick penalty or a hard hit when Chris Pronger is on the ice, but without fear of legitimate retaliation, the traffic in front of the nets gets a little scrappier and the third and fourth liners' fore-check and physical play becomes more effective against a depleted defense.
Rinaldo has played effectively as a grind line pest, and the Flyers have recorded four of their eight victories with him in the lineup.
Rinaldo's continued progression as a more disciplined version of Dan Carcillo is an element to Philadephia's game that will take the emphasis off of Pronger's return.
To survive without No. 20, Rinaldo must bring his physical play every night, and continue to draw penalties as he has—two elements that would bring a smile to Pronger's face.
Learning from Jody Shelley and Max Talbot, two very different players with very similar roles, should aid in Rinaldo's progression as he continues to put together how he can play as effectively as possible on a nightly basis in the National Hockey League.
Sticking together is an oft-used cliche, but it cannot be underestimated in these circumstances.
Whether the captain be Eric Lindros, Keith Primeau, Peter Forsberg or Mike Richards, uncertainty with the 'C' has torn past Flyers teams apart.
Chemistry is this season's theme, as has been suggested by the offseason roster turnover and current marketing campaign.
Even without their appointed leader in Pronger, the Philadelphia Flyers have a ton of experienced veterans in Danny Briere, Jaromir Jagr, Scott Hartnell, Max Talbot, Kimmo Timonen and Andres Lilja.
Braydon Coburn, Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk have all been around long enough to take on an expanded role in the locker room, as has been evident by Giroux wearing a letter on his sweater in Pronger's absence.
Proving they can maintain solid play without Pronger, whose importance to the Flyers is on par with Peyton Manning's to the hapless 0-8 Indianapolis Colts, can be a rallying point for the rest of the players on the team.
The Flyers wagered three first-round picks, a third-rounder and Joffrey Lupul that Chris Pronger, at 35 years old, was the missing piece to Philadelphia's Stanley Cup puzzle.
Overcoming such a valuable player's injury will ultimately make the Flyers a better team, and give them further experience in grinding it out—an experience that comes in handy right around playoff time.
To do so, the remaining leaders must lead by example so the young players follow suit and Pronger's status now, and for the rest of the year, is a more seamless transition.
If everybody is prepared to play without him, his return will only make the team that much better and he can be eased back into the lineup rather than depended on for 20-25 minutes per night right off the bat.
It will come down to the leadership, a question of whether things really are better now than they were last year. Philadelphia put up 106 points in 2010-11 despite Pronger missing 32 regular season games.
This year the chemistry of the club was supposedly improved. If that is, in fact, the case then this Flyers team should be able to deal with the short-term short comings of the team while Pronger is out and and continue to improve even when things are not going their way.
This will lead to more success overall, and an unstoppable machine of a hockey team once the captain returns.
These are my keys to overcoming Chris Pronger's eye injury, and the potential future instances where the Flyers may be without their best defenseman's services. Let me know if you agree or think I'm writing nonsense.