Pronger’s Absence Catching Up to Flyers

On December 15th, the Philadelphia Flyers announced that they were shutting down team captain Chris Pronger for the rest of the 2011-12 NHL season and playoffs due to severe post concussion symptoms. With that, the Flyers lost their top defensemen, power play quarterback, top penalty killer, and team leader. In other words, they lost their most important player, and someone who simply cannot be replaced.

While most teams, especially one as young as the Flyers would have crumbeled due to such a loss they did anything but that. From December 15th through the All-Star break on January 24th the Flyers compiled a very solid 10-7-2 record and earned 22 out of a possible 38 points. The Flyers finished off this run with a 3-2 victory over the Florida Panthers and headed into the All-Star break with confidence. Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, and Kimmo Timonen all made the All-Star team. Rookies Sean Couturier and Matt Read represented the Flyers in the skills competition as a part of the All-Rookie team.

While Pronger’s loss was still deeply felt, Timonen’s play was at the highest level it had been at since joining the Flyers in 2007. Matt Carle was also sharing the load by leading the team in minutes played on most nights and carrying a defense pairing with rookie Marc-Andre Bourdon. The Flyers appeared to have collectively filled the void left by Pronger as much as any team could be expected to. However, the wheels were soon to loosen if not come off completely and in the process bring about major question marks with the makeup of the defense.

The Flyers came out of the All-Star break on January 31st with a home date against the Winnipeg Jets. In what has become an all too familiar site, the Flyers lost in the shootout to the Jets and came away from the game with one point. The Flyers next game was against the playoff bound Nashville Predators. The team was able to catch a break facing off against Nashville backup goaltender Anders Lindback rather than All-Star Pekka Rinne. They responded with a solid all around effort and a much needed 4-1 victory on home ice.

From there, the season began to take a turn for the worse. Over the course of just four days the orange and black suffered three straight losses at the hands of Atlantic Division rivals. Losses of 6-4 to the New Jersey Devils, 5-3 to the New York Rangers, and 1-0 to the New York Islanders in yet another shootout loss laid the ground work for what now can be described as a downward turn to the season. A win over the Toronto Maple Leafs wasn’t enough to get the “flyboys” back on track as they dropped yet another game to the New York Rangers yesterday. The Rangers who lead the Flyers by eight points in the standings with one game in hand added to their dominance of their arch rival by winning their fourth straight over Philly this season, and seventh straight overall dating back to last season.

Unfortunately, the task ahead does not get any easier for the Flyers. This evening they travel to The Motor City to take on the Western Conference leading Detroit Red Wings, who are currently enjoying a 20 game home winning streak.

While examing the Flyers’ current 2-3-2 run since the All-Star break there is certainly plenty of blame to go around. Goal scoring has been down a bit. As per usual goaltending hasn’t exactly been stellar in Philly. For those who know this team and watch them on a regular basis the defense and their style of play has been the biggest factor for the downward spiral. One thing Pronger was able to do that the team has not been able to replace is providing size and physical presence around the net, especially while on the penalty kill. This current group of Flyers defensemen lacks size and snarl overall and has been getting pushed around in front of the net leading to goals against. This holds especially true on the penalty kill.

Last Saturday, when the Flyers dropped a home tilt to the Devils, New Jersey lit the lamp three times while on the power play. Yesterday during a disappointing 5-2 loss to the Eastern Conference leading Rangers, the “Blueshirts” converted three out of a possible seven opportunities with the man advantage. All too often the Rangers were able to gain a dominant position in front of the net and capatalize on that with goals. On the flip side the Flyers inability to get shots through while they are on the man advantage is hurting their power play as well as even strength play. Timonen is the only Flyers blue liner who is able to get shots on net in any consistent fashion. Once again the loss of Pronger comes into play as he has been a stal-wart at running a power play throughout his long career due to a booming and accurate point shot.

In addition to the issues that are plaguing the Flyers on the ice at this time, there are a number of variables which also contribute to the question marks about the current makeup of the team’s defense. Whether or not Pronger will ever play again is a serious question. Timonen is about to turn 37 years old in March and only has one year remaining on his current deal. Carle will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1st and it appears unlikely that he will return due to likely contract demands as well as questions about what the Flyers defense needs from a stylistic standpoint.

In fact, it might even be in the Flyers best interests to consider trading Carle to a Western Conference contender before the February 27th NHL trade deadline. This would enable General Manager Paul Holmgren to gain some valuable assets for the future in return for Carle rather than lose him without any compensation over the summer. Defensemen Braydon Coburn and Andrej Meszaros are both under contract for multiple years. Coburn signed a new four year extension in November which carries a 4.5 million dollar cap hit. Meszaros has two years remaining on his current deal with a salary cap hit of 4.0 million. While both players have great physical tools and play at an extremely high level at times neither guy is able to play at their highest level in a consistent fashion. Both of them provide quality depth to the Flyers blueline and appear to be a part of the long term plans of the organization, especially Coburn.

While both short and long term plans have a life of their own, with the NHL trade deadline approaching in 15 days Holmgren might have to bring the two together with any decisions he makes. Does he trade Carle rather than lose him for nothing in the offseason and build more for the future? Does he pull from a surplus of talented young forwards and make a trade for an equally talented young defensemen who can help both in the short and long term? Does he give up lower end assets to rent a pending unrestricted free agent defensemen in the hopes that the team can go on a long playoff run? Or does he get ultra aggressive and employ a strategy which combines a little bit of all of these elements to help the team’s chances of a cup run for this season as well as set them up for a bolstered back end of the future?

Some answers could be provided shortly with the trade deadline on the horizon. One thing is certain right now, if the Flyers are to make a legitimate run at Lord Stanley’s holy grail either this year or over the next couple of years, Holmgren must overhaul the defense both in terms of talent and style. If he fails to recognize and/or execute a plan to fix this, the recent problems plaguing this team could continue to hinder their efforts to remain amongst the elite of the NHL.  Your move Holmgren.

Follow – @JimmyStizzle

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