As last season progressed it became clear that the Flyers would need to add a physical force on the blue line before they could make a spirited run in the Eastern Conference. The offseason brought whispers – and sometimes much louder overtures – of the team’s interest in Florida’s Jay Bouwmeester and Toronto’s Tomas Kaberle.
But Friday night the team found its shut-down defenseman in the form of Chris Pronger, the 6-foot-6, 220-pound bruiser with all the tools to fit the Flyers’ needs.
Pronger, a 15-year veteran, comes to Philadelphia with a hefty price tag. The Anaheim Ducks will receive right wing Joffrey Lupul and defenseman Luca Sbisa, as well as first-round picks in the 2009 and 2010 drafts and a conditional third-round selection. The Ducks send Pronger and right wing prospect Ryan Dingle to a Philadelphia team that had a disappointing early exit from the playoffs after a first-round loss to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions Pittsburgh Penguins.
Pronger will provide an immediate stabilizing force, stepping in to become the Flyers top defenseman and lend physicality and leadership to a young team that seemed lost at times down the stretch. Braydon Coburn took on a big role with the team last year, perhaps a bit too soon for his development. With Kimmo Timonen capable of playing 30 minutes a night, Coburn will be able to settle into a more comfortable position, giving the Flyers a great amount of depth at the blue line.
The Flyers will miss Sbisa, a talented 19-year-old who was brought up a bit early with the team last year and forced to play forward at times. Given time with the organization he could develop into a shut-down defenseman, but Philadelphia’s focus is on the present. Coburn, Ryan Parent and Matt Carle are all younger than 25, while Randy Jones is just 27, so the Flyers still maintain youth on the back line. But with Pronger’s strength and punishing physical play, they now add a dimension that was lacking last season.
The loss of Joffrey Lupul – a 25-goal, 50-point scorer – will hurt Philadelphia’s offensive depth. He was one of six Flyers’ forwards to tally 25 goals last season.
But with such balanced scoring, coupled with the emergence of Claude Giroux and a healthy Danny Briere, putting the puck in the net will not be an issue. Lupul was due $4.25 million this season and for the following three, a cap hit that would have handcuffed the team at the trade deadline and in the offseason.
Lupul’s exit – and the likely departure of free agent right wing Mike Knuble – leaves the Flyers with few options on the right side. Danny Briere spent time on the wing last season and looked more comfortable away from the center of the ice. Claude Giroux, whose dazzling playmaking ability impressed so many after a December call-up, belongs on one of the top two lines right now.
But without Lupul and Knuble, the Flyers will need to plug some holes. The answer could be Dingle, who scored just 11 goals last season with the Iowa Chops of the AHL. Or some re-shuffling of the deck could make room for former University of New Hampshire standout James van Riemsdyk.
No matter what happens up front, the Flyers are now far more capable defensively than they were last season. In front of former Senators goalie Ray Emery, who spent last year playing in Russia, they might need to be. Pronger will be the veteran presence Philadelphia needs, helping to keep in line a roster dominated by early-twenties skaters. GM Paul Holmgren has hinted in recent weeks that youth, and perhaps overindulgence in the nightlife, hindered the Flyers success last season.
On the ice, Pronger’s 11 goals and 48 points would both have been tops among Flyers defensemen last season. The team lacked a capable scorer from the point and Pronger will deliver the power play scoring necessary to maintain success on special teams. In all facets of the game, both on and off the ice, he will be a great addition to Philadelphia’s roster.
When Pronger was brought to Edmonton in 2006 he helped the Oilers reach the Cup Finals, and a year later he played the same role in bringing Anaheim a title. The Flyers hope that at 34 he will be the missing piece to bring a parade back to Broad Street.