Life without Chris Pronger has left a void in the Philadelphia Flyers’ dressing room that extends far beyond his considerable on-ice presence. Pronger was such a big presence for the Flyers since arriving from the Anaheim Ducks that his absence is palpable – and evident the moment you walk into the room and can’t find his laughing, caustic personality. It really is a different place.
Sometimes, success in the NHL is about a team’s personnel and the talent level they can roll out onto the ice. Other times, success is a real-life chemistry experiment, and the ever-changing dynamic that exists in a 20-player group. Sometimes, a team can become more than the sum of its parts (see St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, Phoenix Coyotes for details). Sometimes, it can become less.
You get the sense that the Flyers – Saturday’s visitors to the Air Canada Centre to play the Toronto Maple Leafs - are starting to sort it all out after an off-season of change that saw Mike Richards and Jeff Carter among others exit, and Jacob Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, Matt Read and others join the club. Early on, you wondered where the leadership would come from on a team that’s so young, so beat up and has made so many changes.
And yet, somehow they’re finding a way. Amazing.
Ilya Bryzgalov was supposed to provide the goaltending solution and just in the last week or so, is showing signs of meeting the heavy early expectations. Daniel Briere, who led the NHL in playoff scoring with 30 points in 23 games when the Flyers made the 2010 Stanley Cup final, hasn’t had a great season, one that’s been undermined by injuries. Briere misses Ville Leino almost as much as Leino misses him. James Van Riemsdyk hasn’t had the breakout season he was supposed to have, and he’s out again - probably until the playoffs - with a broken left foot. They’re getting great years from Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell and Simmonds. Though slowed of late by a hip injury, Jaromir Jagr has been excellent, considering the age on his birth certificate (40) and the years away (three) from the NHL, plying his trade in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.
When you factor in the trade-deadline acquisitions (defencemen Pavel Kubina and Nicklas Grossmann); the injuries (defencemen Andrej Meszaros and Kimmo Timmonen both out indefinitely); and the rookies – defenceman Brandon Manning was the latest to make his NHL debut on Thursday night in a 5-0 whitewash of the Florida Panthers - it’s amazing that they’ve got 10 points of breathing space in the playoff race and are in contention for home-ice advantage in the playoffs. To repeat: Amazing.
Philadelphia has had eight different rookies score goals for them this season, most in the NHL since 1993-94 – and they’re up to 49 goals scored by their rookies. No one is a Calder Trophy candidate, though Matt Read may get a few votes, but they’ve managed to keep the ship afloat despite the general view that losing two core pieces in Richards and Carter, plus the news that Pronger won’t play again this season and maybe never again, would necessitate a backward step. Philadelphia had 106 points last season; they’re at 83 in 66 games this year, so 23 points in the final 16 games gets back to that level, which was good enough to earn the second seed in the Eastern Conference a year ago.
As the East sorts itself out post trade deadline, the Flyers are one of the biggest mysteries, right up there with the overachieving Pittsburgh Penguins and the underachieving Washington Capitals. They are a team that theoretically could go all the way if the pieces fall into place over the final five weeks, or make an early exit.
And no matter what, these being the Flyers, they will be worth watching.
“You wish he was still around obviously,” said Briere, in a long, engaging interview, “because you can never replace a guy like Chris Pronger. You can have many people get together and do the work, but no one person is ever going to replace Chris Pronger - the personality, the presence. Even though he was hurt, just having him around has an effect, but ...