The Flyers acquired the Hall of Fame defenseman in the summer of 2009. Chris Pronger, 34 at the time, was a Stanley Cup champion, former Hart trophy winner, Norris trophy winner, and was entering into his sixteenth season in the NHL. Following the trade, Pronger was inked to a seven-year contract extension by Paul Holmgren, just a few days later.
Pronger strengthened the Flyers’ defense massively and he helped the team reach the Stanley Cup Final in his first season. The Flyers lost to the Blackhawks in six games in the 2010 final, but the future looked very bright for the Orange and Black. A team with loaded young talent and a veteran presence on the blue-line, it looked like the Flyers were entering into a new era.
The 2010-2011 Season
With high expectations following a Stanley Cup Final appearance the season prior, the Flyers had a regular-season record of 47-23-12, which saw them finish first in the Atlantic Division. Pronger only played fifty games that season due to a number of injuries.
In the playoffs, the Flyers eliminated the Sabres in seven games in the first round but then were demolished by the Bruins in the second round. The Bruins were on a mission for revenge from the 2010 series. The Flyers were outscored 20-7 in the series and were swept in four games.
The playoffs were obviously a huge disappointment, but the team still had a very talented young core. Everyone would be back again next year, right? Right?! Wrong.
Paul Holmgren blew up the Flyers in the summer of 2011. Trading Mike Richards to the Kings for Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, and a 2012 second-round pick. Jeff Carter was then traded to the Blue Jackets for Jakub Voracek and two 2011 draft picks. One of those picks ended up to be future Selke winner, Sean Couturier. These trades were just one of the many moves that Holmgren made that summer.
The 2011 off-season was one of the biggest in recent Flyers history. A brand new core of players and Pronger was the new captain. The expectations for the next season were high yet again.
The Flyers were clearly in a “win-now” mode.
The Pronger Injury
On October 24, 2011, Pronger took a stick to the eye from Mikhail Grabovski. Pronger would miss the next six games, but then return to play for five games after. After a game against the Jets on November 19, the Flyers announced that Pronger would be out indefinitely due to concussion-like symptoms.
Pronger would never play in the NHL again, and the Flyers would never be the same.
The Flyers finished the regular season with a 47-26-9 record and 3rd in the Atlantic Division. It looked like another exciting postseason.
To try and fill the gap that Pronger left on defense, Holmgren acquired Nicklas Grossmann from the Stars and Pavel Kubina from the Lightning before the 2012 trade deadline. Both players helped the Flyers’ defense but were unable to fill Pronger’s gap.
The Flyers would eliminate the Penguins in six games in the first round but would get knocked out in five games to the Devils in the second round. The Devils completely outplayed the Flyers in that series, and they revealed the weak Pronger-less defense that the Flyers had.
The Devils would then beat the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final to advance to the Stanley Cup final. Guess who the Devils played in the final? You guessed it! The Los Angeles Kings led by Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Simon Gagne was also on the team, because of course.
The Kings beat the Devils in six games to win their first-ever Stanley Cup. A year after being dealt, Richards and Carter were Stanley Cup Champions, and the Flyers were going into a downward spiral.
The summer of 2012 was when Paul Holmgren started to make some questionable decisions. Still trying to desperately fill the Pronger gap, Holmgren tried to sign Shea Weber from the Predators. Holmgren offered Weber an enormous contract, a 14-year deal worth $110 million. Weber accepted the offer sheet, but the Predators would match it.
After losing out on Weber, Holmgren traded James van Riemsdyk for Luke Schenn. A very questionable move, but Holmgren was desperate to improve the defense.
Holmgren still tried to keep the Flyers in a “win-now” mode but time was running out fast.
So what if Pronger never went down with a career-ending injury? There are a lot of different things that could’ve happened in this alternate universe.
The Flyers would’ve been a favorite for the Stanley Cup in 2012. The Flyers always played extremely better when Pronger was in the lineup. With a healthy Pronger in the playoffs for the Flyers, they would’ve been in a much better position to beat the Devils in the second round and a matchup with the Rangers in the conference final could’ve gone either way.
The Flyers lost all six games against the Rangers in the 2011-2012 season, but imagine if a healthy Pronger was available for just a few of those games and the impact he would’ve made? It would’ve been a whole different outcome. A Flyers versus Rangers conference final would’ve been a thriller, and imagine if the Flyers won and faced the Kings in the Stanley Cup Final. Coming up against Richards and Carter for the cup in their first season out of Philly would’ve been the most Flyers thing ever.
The Flyers also probably wouldn’t have made the trades for Grossman and Kubina in 2012. Trading JVR for Luke Schenn probably wouldn’t have happened either if the Flyers made it deeper into the playoffs.
The Shea Weber offer sheet certainly wouldn’t have happened. That offer sheet ended up causing a lot of other GM’s unwillingness to make deals with Holmgren, and that eventually led to the hiring of Ron Hextall in 2014.
Maybe the Flyers win a Cup with a healthy Pronger, or maybe they don’t. The one thing that’s known is that they would’ve been a much better team and a serious threat during the 2012 playoffs and for more years to come. You could write an entire book about the “what if’s” of the Pronger injury, and also many other things that have happened during the history of the franchise.
Where the Flyers Are
Ever since Pronger’s absence, the Flyers have not been close to being a contender. They have only made the playoffs four times since 2012 and have only made it past the first round once. The Flyers got into a rhythm of making the playoffs one year and missing them the next.
The Flyers entered the Claude Giroux era after 2012, as he was named captain in January 2013 and has been the face of the franchise since.
After Hextall became GM in 2014, his goal was to rebuild the defense, something that was lacking tremendously after Pronger was gone. Under Hextall, the Flyers have drafted notable defensemen such as Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim. Just like with Holmgren, Hextall has also made some controversial draft picks and other decisions that you could also dive deep into. Hextall was fired in 2019 and was replaced by Chuck Fletcher.
It goes without saying that the Chris Pronger eye injury from Mikhail Grabovski changed the course of the Flyers for the past decade. A team that was a yearly contender, changed into a team with a lost identity and an unclear future. The Flyers are still recovering from the effects of the Pronger injury today and also the many decisions that were made after it.
(Mandatory Credit: Icon Sportswire)