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 ...
"It is what it is. We can't do anything about it. It's sad what's happened to him. All we can do at this point is hope that his life gets back to normal - and if it does, I'm sure he'll deal with the hockey part after that. First and foremost, you just hope his regular lifestyle can get back to normal."
Coach Peter Laviolette's primary challenge has been trying to make all the new pieces fit into some cohesive whole and according to Briere, it's working.
"There's been a lot of changes and obviously, we don't have the experience that we had last year when we had Richards and Carter and Leino and even (Darrell) Powe and (Dan) Carcillo," continued Briere. "But I think we brought something else that was maybe lacking a little bit. We brought some youth and some exuberance and guys that have something to prove - emotionally and passionately. That's why we had such a good start. We have so many rookies, so we're all going to through some ups and downs and some bumps in the season, but at this point, I'm hoping it makes us better for down the line."
Because in the East, is there really a dominant team? The Penguins have fared well, despite Sidney Crosby's extended absence. The Boston Bruins have some their moments of excellence and moments of mediocrity. The most consistent team, night in and night out, is the New York Rangers, another team that is a product of chemistry where everyone plays coach John Tortorella's system extremely well. The Rangers don't give up much and they rely on goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. They also own the Flyers, having won every meeting this season, so that is not a match-up that Philadelphia would want early.
"It's definitely up for grabs," said Briere. "There are lots of teams, right there, that have the tools to go all the way. I think all these teams need something to go right - to get the right bounces, for things to fall into place. It seems that every team has something that they're not completely happy with. But I like our chances. I think we're a tougher team to play against. I think we're built more for the playoffs than for the regular season, but we'll see when it matters most."
THE JAGR EXPERIMENT - Pavel Kubina, a Stanley Cup winner in 2004 and a player that, when he's on his game, can be an important contributor on defence, was likely Philadelphia's most important February pickup. Kubina says the adjustment to the Flyers wasn't all that complicated, and it was made easier by the presence of a couple of Czech countrymen on the roster – the ageless Jagr and youngster Voracek, who came over from Columbus in the Carter trade.
Jagr has played some this year with Giroux this and some with Briere. Nobody in Philadelphia knew too much about Jagr before they scooped him up on the opening day of free agency, pilfering him from the Penguins, who thought they had him coming their way. Potentially, Philadelphia could play Pittsburgh in the opening round and if they do, Jagr will surely be a focus of attention.
Kubina is looking forward to the opportunity, noting that he has only had a chance to play 13 playoff games since Tampa won the Cup - five the year after the championship, when they exited in the first round, and then eight more last year, when they upset the Penguins in the opening round and then fell to the Bruins in the second round.
"It's fun to get back and especially to play for the Flyers," said Kubina. "It's one of the best organizations in the league, and always a top team in the league, and an honour for me to put a Flyers' jersey on.
"It's a fun group, a lot of young guys, and I knew a few guys from before, so that makes it a lot easier for me."
"Same guy," said Kubina. "It's hard to play against him. I played two games against him this year (for Tampa). It's unbelievable. He just turned 40. It's unbelievable the stuff he does, on the ice and off the ice. What I like about him a lot, he's a great example for the young guys. There are 10 guys around here, 20 or 22 or 23 years old and they can grow up by watching a guy like that. It's a great fit.
"He's so strong, and a big guy. That's why he's one of the best in the league and why he's been one of the best forever."
Briere said of Jagr or "JJ" as he called him: "He's been amazing. He's been fun to be around. He's been very upbeat. He's been working hard. He's been a model for all the young guys we have, with how hard he's been working. He comes into the rink, smiling almost every day, and that's good to see. Obviously, I didn't know what to expect too much when we signed him, but he's been better than I expected, with his attitude off the ice, it's been a great addition. It's fun to have him back."
IF IT'S PHILADELPHIA, THERE MUST BE A GOALIE CONTROVERSY: Or there was until this week, when Bryzgalov was cheered "Bryz, Bryz, Bryz," by the home faithful Thursday, after posting his second shutout of the week. How happy was the Flyers' room? It prompted not one, but two lines that qualify as quote of the week material (all via the Philadelphia Inquirer).
From Scott Hartnell, who now leads the NHL in power-play goals: "I woke up there on the bench and thought we were in Winnipeg" (this of course a reference to the booing Bryzgalov receives in Winnipeg, where he said he didn't want to play last year as a member of the Phoenix Coyotes.
From Bryzgalov: : "Brandon Manning was released by the Colts and he played tonight here, he stepped up and played very good" – this a reference to the Flyers' rookie who was called up on an emergency basis after Kubina couldn't go.
Bryzgalov is proving – finally – that really isn't as inept as he'd seemed up until a couple of weeks ago, which should come as no surprise to anyone that watched him play all those years, first with Anaheim, then with Phoenix. He was having a poor year, and maybe coming out of it now. But he is not a bad goaltender.
Somebody in Philly must have finally tweaked to the reality that Bryzgalov is a unique personality, who responds far better to the carrot than the stick. Once he started trusting his instincts and his experience, Bryzgalov suddenly looked fine. But he's never experienced a sports town such Philadelphia that can be flat-out mean when things go south, so it's going to take everything he's experienced this season, plus these last five weeks until the end of the regular season, for him to thicken that hide. Playoffs will be the ultimate test and playoffs weren't so good to him last year in Phoenix, when he wasn't the only player in the Coyotes' dressing room to let rumours of the imminent departure to Winnipeg to distract them in the opening round against the Detroit Red Wings. In the meantime, the Flyers look as if they've figured it out – just let Bryz be Bryz and everything will okay. He's just played too much good hockey for too long to think that he can lose it overnight.
THE INJURY WATCH: All that day-by-day monitoring of Crosby in Pittsburgh? It's going on in Chicago too, with team captain Jonathan Toews, also out of the lineup with a concussion and missing now with for eight games and counting. Toews skated Thursday for the first time in two weeks and though there is no official timetable for his return, the thinking is that Toews could be back within a week or so, provided there are no further setbacks. Chicago is currently sixth in the Western Conference with 79 points, which is five ahead of the ninth-place Los Angeles Kings, who hold a game in hand. All it takes at this stage of the season is a bad week to slip right down to that playoff cut-off line – and the Blackhawks, a team that backed into postseason play a year ago on the final day, doesn't want to go through that again.
Meanwhile, in Colorado, where the Avalanche have stayed in the race, they'll need to press forward without Matt Duchene, who is likely out until the final week of the season with a right ankle sprain. As luck would have it, Duchene was injured late in a game that the Avalanche were winning easily – 7-1 over slumping Minnesota. Duchene earlier missed almost two months recovering from a knee injury in what has been a nightmare year for the flashy youngster.