Anyone can play in Flyers' goal as long as Pronger plays

Chris Pronger's health should be a major offseason concern.
Chris Pronger's health should be a major offseason concern. (YONG KIM / Staff photographer)
Posted: May 11, 2011

SEE IF YOU notice the pattern.

Q: Why do the Flyers need a goaltender?

A: Chris Pronger.

Q: Why did the Flyers lose to the Bruins?

A: Chris Pronger.

Q: Who is the Flyers' most important health issue?

A: Chris Pronger.

You really don't have to read the rest if you don't feel like it. This is about the issue that should dominate the Flyers' thinking in the offseason. This is about Chris Pronger.

The Flyers slumped down the stretch of the regular season when Pronger broke a hand, and they were bounced in the second round of the playoffs when he injured his back, and now he is a 36-year-old potentially facing surgery on a herniated disc, and now the Flyers had better be in more of a hurry than they were last summer.

Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said yesterday that he does not agree with this premise, by the way. He said there is no shortening period of time for this nucleus to be successful, no Pronger window, and even if there were, that this Pronger window is not soon closing.

"You talk about the window - what does that mean?" Holmgren said. "We still have a core group of young players here that still has a lot of years left. The older guys you're talking about are Chris Pronger and probably Kimmo [Timonen]. I think they're both elite players at their positions. They both take care of themselves. They both still want to play, want to play a lot of minutes. They're both under contract for a few more years. I don't see that as an issue."

But Pronger? And his back?

"I think Chris can play the game for a long time at a high level," Holmgren said.

That is what he says now, and that's all fine - but I bet you he goes out and gets a goalie with some kind of a pedigree to be the starter while Sergei Bobrovsky develops as the backup. It won't be because the new goaltender will be a guarantee, because that person does not exist. It will be because the Flyers cannot afford another spring like this one in goal - and that is true, even recognizing that goaltending was not the main reason they lost to the Bruins.

They simply cannot take a chance on wasting another year of Pronger.

Holmgren can play this two ways. One is to anoint Bobrovsky as the hope for the franchise and run him out there, come hell or high to the glove side. That assumes two things, of course. One is that the Flyers believe he is their future, and that he will even out temperamentally as he matures in the NHL, and that he is good enough (and teachable enough) physically. The second assumption is that, because they like him so much, they would be willing to live with growing pains if they arrive next spring.

No one knows if either assumption is true. But after starting (and surviving) three different goaltenders in Round 1 this season, the strong suspicion is that nobody is ready for any growing pains in 2012.

Which means that they have to go out and get a guy. They have to be thinking about the next couple of years. They have to be thinking about Pronger.

Before the start of the playoffs, I wrote a blog post saying that I thought the Flyers could survive for a few games, and beat Buffalo in the first round, without him. I quoted a bunch of stats from the games in the regular season when they had Pronger and when they didn't have him - and, to summarize, every one of them was worse without Pronger. But I still thought their late-season slide was more about boredom than about Pronger's absence.

His injury made them worse but it wasn't the root cause of their problems. Given that, I thought they had enough to get by for a few games without him in the playoffs.

As it turned out, they needed to win Games 6 and 7 to beat Buffalo - and, as we all know, Pronger came back in a limited role for those two games. He played a lot in Game 1 of the next series against Boston, was a minus-3, didn't look good, didn't finish the game, and didn't come back for the rest of the series. And here we are.

When he is healthy, and when he is playing nearly half of the game - which is what he does in the playoffs - Pronger takes pressure off of everyone. As the Flyers continually had trouble getting the puck out of their own end against Boston, and failed to fight through the Bruins' clogging of the middle of the ice, you couldn't help but wonder how Pronger might have altered the dynamic.

Then, this: The Flyers play a go-go, aggressive style, and you also couldn't help but wonder if somewhere, somehow, there was a natural tendency to dial back that aggression because of a fear that the chances that can result the other way from overaggressiveness were just too great a risk without Pronger back there, and with the goalie being pulled every night.

Immediately after losing the series to the Bruins, coach Peter Laviolette talked about how he would not use Pronger's injury as an excuse. But he also said, "You just notice the impact that a guy like [Boston's Zdeno] Chara has on the other side, and when you don't have your big guy in there. He plays the same style and the same way. You certainly miss him."

Maybe they don't beat the Bruins anyway, for all of the reasons that everyone is chewing over: goaltending, immaturity, etc. But Pronger is in the middle of this, and his absence accentuated those other issues. Next year, he is vital to the Flyers' success.

He needs to be him again, and the Flyers need an experienced starting goaltender. Time's wasting. *

Send email to

hofmanr@phillynews.com,

or read his blog, The Idle Rich, at

www.philly.com/TheIdleRich.

For recent columns go to

www.philly.com/RichHofmann.

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