By Stu Hackel
Chris Pronger will miss up to six weeks with a broken bone in his right foot, and without the imposing presence of the All-Star defenseman in their lineup, the league-leading Flyers will face a rough stretch of games right away. That makes adjusting to the loss of the 6-foot-6, 220-pound backbone of their defense corps a bigger challenge.
Coming up on the Flyers' schedule is a game against their heated rivals, the Rangers, at home on Saturday afternoon. Then, after a Monday game against the Panthers, the Flyers have an eight-day break before the first of a four-game road trip in which they visit Vancouver, Los Angeles, Anaheim and Detroit over the course of six nights. It will be a test for a reconfigured defense that, to start, will include 23-year-old second-year player Oskars Bartulis, who has been in the lineup for only three games this season -- two of them when Pronger was rehabbing an injury at the start of the season. Bartulis has not played since Nov. 1 and has only 56 NHL games on his career resume.
Sam Carchidi blogging for The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Flyers blueline contingent lined up at practice today this way: Andrej Meszaros, who leads the NHL in plus-minus at plus-21 was paired with Pronger's usual partner, Matt Carle, which would mean that Meszaros is likely to get some of Pronger's minutes. The other pairings were juggled at different times, but Bartulis saw some action with Sean O'Donnell (who is second to Meszaros at plus-18). Braydon Coburn skated with Kimmo Timonen. Those pairings are, of course, subject to change.
Even without Pronger, the Flyers' depth keeps their defense strong. But Pronger is their bulwark. He's been playing over 22 minutes a game, about the same as Timonen, and is Philadelphia's leading scorer among blueliners with four goals and 11 assists. And the physical dimension that Pronger provides his team all over the ice is formidable.
“Missing a guy like Prongs is obviously going to hurt,” Scott Hartnell told Sarah Baicker of CSNPhilly.com. “He’s a force back there. He’s a big body, he plays the power play, the penalty kill. He plays a lot of minutes, so we’ll miss him. But that’s why you have depth in the lineup, and guys can step in to play big minutes too.”
"The beauty of the depth of our defense corps is we don't have to overtax anybody," Flyers center Danny Briere told Chuck Gormley of The Camden Courier-Post. "Everybody is playing around 18 to 22 minutes a night, so these guys are used to the ice time. Oskars is going to have to find his way through it, but the other five defensemen have been very involved in every part of our game. I don't think it's going to be too much of a problem."
Apart from Bartulis, the Flyers' options to replace Pronger in the lineup are limited. Their other extra defenseman, Matt Walker, had hip surgery on Thursday and won't be able to play again for up to two months. Adding someone through a trade could be problematic as they currently have no room under the salary cap.
The Flyers had just taken over first place overall from the Penguins on the strength of their defeating Pittsburgh on Tuesday night. They played the next night in Montreal and, although they defeated the Canadiens to extend their lead, Pronger blocked a shot in the second period that busted the first metatarsal of his right foot. He underwent surgery this afternoon to repair the break. It's the same leg on which he had knee surgery over the summer and that caused him to miss the first two games of the regular season.
"Pronger has spent much of this season trying to strengthen his right leg and his latest injury is likely to slow that process," wrote Gormley.
Captain Mike Richards, with whom Pronger supposedly tussled for team leadership early last season, said, “It will be tough. What he means to a hockey team -- not just on the ice, but in the dressing room, too. But it happens. It happens all over the league, and we’re just going to have to learn to play without him.”