Philadelphia Flyers analysis: What if Chris Pronger’s career didn’t end early?
Paul Holmgren’s trade for Chris Pronger on draft night in 2009 had the potential to be the biggest deal of his tenure as Flyers general manager. The decision to move Joffrey Lupul and (effectively) three consecutive first-round picks brought one of the best defensemen in NHL history to Philadelphia in a clear move that this team was ready to win-now.
Paul Holmgren’s decisions that followed Pronger’s career-ending injuries in October and November 2011 changed everything.
As part of What If week here at BSH, we’ll begin with a question that we’d all surely love the answer to: what if Chris Pronger didn’t get injured?
Pronger, of course, immediately became a difference-maker in Philadelphia, playing a huge role on that team in 2009-10 that got within two wins of a Stanley Cup despite only having four defensemen that were really playable in the playoffs. He was again outstanding when on the ice in 2010-11, but injuries including a broken foot limited him to just 50 regular-season games and three playoff games that year. His absence was harshly felt in the regular season, and without him the Flyers needed seven games to beat a Buffalo team that they were clearly better than (not that he was the only reason for that) and had nothing left to give during their second-round demolition at the hands of the Bruins.
Pronger was named captain prior to the 2011-12 season, as Mike Richards had been traded the summer before. Things started out well for Pronger and the Flyers; he posted seven points in 23:30 of ice time per game as the Flyers went 4-2-1 in their first seven games that year. Then, on October 24 at the Wells Fargo Center, Maple Leafs center Mikhail Grabovski hit Pronger in the eye with his stick on a follow-through. Pronger immediately headed off the ice, and he’d go on from there to miss the Flyers’ next six games. He would return for five games after that, and following a November loss in Winnipeg he would take some more time off due to what the team called a “virus”, during which time he also had knee surgery.
Then, two weeks after that surgery, the Flyers revealed that Pronger was dealing with “severe” post-concussion syndrome and would miss the rest of the season. Those struggles with concussion symptoms and vision problems cost Pronger the rest of his playing career. It’s just a brutal end to a career for Pronger, who dealt with his concussion problems for years to follow (he spoke in 2013 about battling with depression) and is still trying to get back to living a normal life nearly a decade later.
As he lived out the final few years of his contract with the Flyers, (which didn’t expire until 2017, though he made a quick cameo in Arizona in 2015), Pronger spent some time working with the Flyers’ scouting staff. He also worked with the Department of Player Safety, and since his official retirement he has been a part of the Florida Panthers’ front office.
There are so many things that happened to the Flyers, both that season and well beyond it, that probably don’t happen — and vice-versa — if Grabovski’s stick misses Pronger on that follow-through (or if Pronger is wearing a visor) and he’s able to play some more time with this team. Attempting to untangle the whole mess at once would require keeping far too many hypotheticals balanced, so let’s just try and answer some questions about it instead.
1. How much better is that 2011-12 team if Pronger stays healthy the whole year?
It’s tough to quantify exactly how much better, but at the time the injuries took place, Pronger, even at 37 years old, was still a very, very good NHL defenseman. As some nerd pointed out at the time, the Flyers’ on-ice possession numbers at 5-on-5 were drastically better in games with Pronger available than ones without him; if his impact was even half as big as those numbers suggested, that team — which, lest we forget, was still a damn good team despite Pronger’s absence and all of the Ilya Bryzgalov-adjacent drama — is one of the best in the league.
Could they have made a run for the top seed in the East (they would finish six points behind the Rangers) or even the President’s Trophy (eight points behind the Canucks)? The Flyers were swept by the Rangers in six regular-season outings that year — if his presence flips just one of those six games, how different do the standings look? And failing that, would they have jumped Pittsburgh (five more points) for home ice? It doesn’t seem farfetched to think that if Pronger is around, the Flyers finish second in the Metro at worst.
And what about the playoffs? In a world where the Flyers play the Devils in the second round again … well, it’s tough to think Pronger single-handedly swings a series where the Devils were obviously the better team on the ice, but given how much trouble the Flyers had just getting the puck out of their zone in that series, you have to think he’d have helped. As mentioned, the Rangers gave them fits that season, but who else would probably have beaten them? If Bryzgalov holds up even a little bit, their roster could have gone toe-to-toe with any other in the East.
(Also, let’s spare a moment to think about how sad it is that we were robbed of Chris Pronger being able to partake in That Series Against The Penguins. Can you imagine what he’d have done to Arron Asham or James Neal? Lord.)
It’s tough to say how different the locker room would have been if Pronger was around. He clearly wasn’t best friends with everyone in the room, and maybe the team wouldn’t have gelled the way it did if he was the undisputed leader of the team day in and day out. But don’t get it twisted: that team is a legitimate Stanley Cup contender if Pronger is healthy, just like it was in 2009-10 and like it appeared to be in 2010-11 when he was healthy.
2. What moves does that 2011-12 team not make that they they ended up making?
One thing that became evident when Chris Pronger got hurt was that the Flyers had absolutely no idea how to replace him. In some ways, this is understandable; Pronger is, y’know, one of the best defensemen in NHL history, and when you plan to have him on your team for close to a decade and suddenly he’s gone, you may find yourself scrambling to replace him. But Holmgren took a number of swings over the next few years to try and fill the Pronger-sized gap in his lineup, and most of them didn’t quite work out the way they were hoping.
Those efforts began in earnest around the 2012 trade deadline, when the Flyers sent out four draft picks out to bring in rentals Nicklas Grossmann and Pavel Kubina. Both were big, physical, stay-at-home defensemen, the kind of guys that you would hope can help replace Pronger on the defensive end of the ice. The two had very different fates in Philadelphia; Grossmann showed Holmgren enough to lock down not just a spot on the blue line that year but a four-year contract extension, while Kubina was mostly a healthy scratch by the time the team reached the playoffs.
There’s no chance that both of those moves are made if Pronger is still around. The question, then, is do either of them happen? The Flyers’ other top defensemen stayed fairly healthy that year (Matt Carle played all 82 games, Braydon Coburn 81, Kimmo Timonen 76), and Andrej Meszaros was a totally cromulent third-pair blue liner. Would the Flyers have shelled out a second and third-round pick just to “upgrade” from some mix of Erik Gustafsson, Marc-Andre Bourdon, and Andreas Lilja to Grossmann? Probably, yes; the Flyers of that age cared little for the cost of assets if they thought the return made them a better team in any measurable way.
Perhaps the more interesting question is whether they still give Grossmann a four-year extension. Given the fact that he “played well” in his time with the Flyers that year (read: had a good plus-minus), I wouldn’t be surprised if they still gave him that contract. But even if they did that, they’d still have had an extra second and fourth-round pick that they then gave up for Kubina. Win some, lose some.
3. What do — and don’t — the Flyers do that following summer?
As we said in the above question, Pronger’s absence threw the Flyers’ short and long-term plans totally into flux. And it seems like that summer there were a number of moves where Paul Holmgren did everything he could to get as close as he could, to poor results.
In terms of actual consequence for the team, the biggest move that the Flyers made that summer was almost certainly the trade of James van Riemsdyk for Luke Schenn, which took place after years’ worth of rumors. Maybe that’s one that still happens, though maybe not if the Flyers still keep Grossmann (as we guessed in the last section) or if they make it further in the playoffs (which would possibly have made them less likely to want to deal JvR, or less likely to make another move to address their defense). The Flyers clearly weren’t thrilled with how the beginning of JvR’s career went, and maybe they were doomed for a split. But with Pronger around, it does feel like the need for another big, hulking defenseman would have been limited.
Then there was free agency. It seems unlikely that the Flyers with Pronger spend the first week of free agency making pushes to get Ryan Suter and/or Zach Parise, which seemed to have cost them their best chances at retaining Jaromir Jagr and Matt Carle. (Carle probably would have walked anyway given the contract he received from Tampa, but it certainly seemed like Jagr would’ve been willing to come back on the right offer.) They instead settled for Ruslan Fedotenko and Bruno Gervais, obvious downgrades from the players they were replacing; if Pronger’s around, do they maybe not think that they need a star at the top of their lineup and just go for the reinforcements instead?
Pronger’s presence also makes it quite unlikely that the Flyers would have signed Shea Weber to the infamous offer sheet they sent him late in July that year. And while that ultimately didn’t have a huge impact on the Flyers — it happened after free agency had mostly slowed to a crawl, so it didn’t keep them from doing anything else, and they never had the gargantuan contract Weber has now on their books — it’s funny to think about how different the NHL may look if they’d never done it. Does Weber sign a slightly more reasonable deal that offseason? If so, do the Preds not turn around and trade him a few years later for PK Subban? And, on a more Flyers-related note, after that moment the Flyers and Preds didn’t connect on a trade until almost seven years later — would the two teams that had been pretty regular trading partners have continued to be?
There are so many questions, ones we’ll of course never know the answer to. But that offseason was the one where things really started to go off the rails for the Flyers, and if their best defenseman was still around a lot of those moves that led them down that path maybe wouldn’t have happened.
4. When do the Flyers become Claude Giroux’s team?
Even when it became clear Pronger would miss some time, the Flyers were in good hands with the guy who quickly became the face of the franchise. Claude Giroux led the team with 93 points that season, should have at least been a Hart Trophy finalist, and dominated in That Series Against The Penguins. When camp came around the following winter and it became evident the Flyers probably weren’t going to see Chris Pronger on the ice again, the Flyers quickly named him their captain, a title he’s held since then.
How long does it take for Giroux to become captain if Pronger remains healthy and a good NHL defenseman? Pronger was under contract until 2017. Even if it was never terribly likely that he was going to play out all five of those remaining seasons, based on how good he still was at the time of his injury he likely could’ve continued to be a plus contributor for another two or three seasons. The Flyers surely wouldn’t have stripped him of the C unless/until he either wasn’t a lineup regular anymore, was put on long-term injured reserve for some other injury, or wasn’t on the team.
Does that change anything with the dynamic of the team over the few years that followed? It’s tough to say. On the one hand, that 2010-11 team that was ultimately blown up the following summer clearly had some personalities that didn’t all get along, and Pronger was a part of that combustible dynamic. He chewed out Giroux in the locker room at least once during that season, and while that may have just been a learning experience for a 23-year old budding star, who knows what would have gone down as Giroux’s star transcended Pronger’s on the ice?
That said, on the other hand, the team achieved tremendous success on the ice basically the entire time that Giroux and Pronger were both available to play. They’d have probably made it work. Then again, they made it work while Jeff Carter and Mike Richards were there too, and we all know how that ended up.
5. What else is different?
That’s a little bit of a dramatization, but think about it. The post-Pronger Flyers became a team that wasn’t really much of anything, trudging through sheer, unadulterated mediocrity for seven years before finally turning the corner in a season that has been rudely interrupted by a global pandemic. That mediocrity was in no small part due to the transactions the team made (almost all unsuccessfully) trying to fill the void left in its lineup by Pronger’s departure … and its success this year is due in large part to the actions that, eventually, came as a result of that mediocrity.
With Pronger around, the Flyers probably fight for a Cup in that 2011-12 season. If the postseason ends a bit later that year, maybe then the Flyers keep the band mostly together that summer rather than lose key pieces while trying to get Suter/Parise/Weber, and they come out firing again the following year. Maybe some of the other moves they made still happen — it seems likely that the team still would have spent its compliance buyouts on Bryzgalov and Danny Briere the summer after the lockout, and maybe Paul Holmgren still turns around and spends that money on Mark Streit and Vincent Lecavalier — but the Flyers at that point become a team trying to sustain what it had, with a talented, up-and-coming forward corps supplementing a defense full of still-competent veterans.
Of course, if the Flyers extend that run a bit further and are at least a legitimate playoff team over, say, the three seasons after Pronger’s injury, what do they miss out on? For one, maybe Ron Hextall’s tenure as general manager. Does Holmgren step down when he does if the Flyers win a couple more playoff series in 2013 or 2014? It seems like Hextall was going to become the general manager eventually, but maybe he ends up having to wait a bit longer. Do the Flyers wait a bit longer to do their soft-rebuild of sorts that they spent basically Hextall’s entire tenure doing?
Because if so, a number of moves that were made that probably wouldn’t have been. From a free agency/trade perspective, without Hextall basically sitting on his cap room for as long as he did, they probably don’t have the cap room to make the big moves they did last two summers, such as bringing in (or bringing back) James van Riemsdyk, Matt Niskanen, Justin Braun, and Kevin Hayes. And then there’s the draft. Maybe the Flyers still get Travis Sanheim in the first round in 2014, but 2015? It seems unlikely a team with Pronger leading its blue line is picking seventh overall to get Ivan Provorov, and it seems equally unlikely that that team is trading Braydon Coburn for the first-round pick that ultimately leads them to Travis Konecny. Maybe by 2017 they’ve fallen off to the point where they still win the draft lottery and get Nolan Patrick, but the team we know today would be drastically different from the team we’d be looking at had the Flyers had an actual good team for the three seasons that followed Pronger’s injury.
Chris Pronger’s injury was terrifying. His teammates said they’d never heard him scream like they did when it happened, it changed his life for the worse, and it became clear before long that the Flyers weren’t going to have him around any more. Despite only playing 171 total games with the franchise, it goes to show just how big of a presence he was that his injury set off a chain of events that it took the Flyers almost a decade to fully pull their way back from. Everything we know and have watched over the past eight and a half years would be different had the injury not happened, making this maybe the biggest What If of the decade for the Orange and Black.