For all the young talent, scoring champions, goalies and party boys that made their way through the revolving doors of the Wells Fargo Center this summer the Flyers’ key to success remains exactly the same as the past two years.
The health of Chris Pronger.
The Flyers future Hall of Famer battled multiple injuries last season and went under the knife several times over the summer months. Fans witnessed in horror last spring as a team that dominated the Easter Conference for the first three-quarters of the season fumbled miserably down the stretch without its best defenseman.
There was still plenty of offensive talent and the defense, for the most part, had the talent to compete. But something was not the same. Without its stalwart on defense, a crutch the whole team could rely on in times of turmoil, the Flyers were simply not the same. Alongside their horrendous goaltending the misguided Flyers were swept by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Bruins in the second round.
The disconnected gripes and moans of ESPN puck heads may lead you to the ill-conceived notion that a lack of scoring will be the Flyers main issue this season. It, of course, does require some sort of acknowledgment. Losing Richards, Carter and Leino is also a loss of 78 goals. On paper it is a lot to overcome.
But anyone who has witnessed a pre-season game for the Flyers should be put to ease. Yes, these games are somewhat meaningless but it’s hard to deny the amount of talent that is still on the offensive side of the puck. A first line of James Van Riemsdyk and Jaromir Jagr centered by Claude Giroux looks like it could run circles around opponent’s defenseman. Jagr called Giroux “a little [Mario] Lemieux” just to put things in perspective.
That line should be followed by a combination of Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell and a Right Wing du jours—most likely Jakub Voracek. With grinders like Max Talbot and Matt Read the third-line will be tough to play against. The scoring potential of Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier—it is yet to be determined if either or both will make the team—is a wild card that could help the Flyers offense even more.
Scoring will not be a problem this year, especially with Ilya Bryzgalov manning the pipes for 60-70 games.
The Flyers current team core is obviously their deep, physical defense. Instead of trading away Matt Carle or Andrej Meszaros to clear salary for Illya Bryzgalov, Paul Holmgren jettisoned his best offensive players, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. A shocking move to all, but Holmgren clearly thinks this defense is good enough to win a Stanley Cup and is putting all his marbles in that basket.
And the glue to that defense and the whole team is Pronger. Whether his leadership is that effective or his presence does something for the psyche of the whole squad there is no denying the positive effect he has. His first passes from behind the net set up offensive rushes. His calm demeanor settles down young players. His tenacity puts the fear of the sweaty glove in the heart of opposing players. And while Bryzgalov certainly can win games on his own, the Flyers need more if they have aspirations past the regular season.
Looking back at Stanley Cup winners over the past decade shows the importance of that number one defenseman. Once it gets to the playoffs a goalie tends to receive most of the credit, but more often than not there is a big, shutdown D-man in front of him.
Last year Tim Thomas had Zdeno Chara playing in front of him as Thomas made his mind-boggling bid for post-season glory. Antti Niemi had Duncan Keith as the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Flyers in 2010. In 2008, Chris Osgood stabilized the Red Wings but it was the ageless Niklas Lidstrom that led the team to the Stanley Cup. Before that Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermeyer led the Anaheim Ducks to the cup. Before that Niedermeyer stood in front of Martin Brodeur for two Stanley Cups.
The list goes on. The Penguins won the cup in 2009 with an eclectic group of above average defenseman but they are the exception, not the rule.
There are going to be a lot of storylines going into this season and a lot to follow. But when you get down to it and look at what this team has done, their success rides completely on the captain, Chris Pronger.