There are far too many NHL players skating with welts in their backs put there by Chris Pronger to readily figure out which one is sticking the pins in the No. 20 doll.
After injuries to the back, wrist, eye and now a second knee in two seasons, our theory is this cant be one Pronger hater working alone. But the Flyers have better things to do now than to hunt them down or to cry over spilled milk, especially the way they curdled last season without him.
They went 9-4-0 between Dec. 18 and Jan. 18 as Prongers foot healed, but only 6-4-6 from March 10 to April 9, while his wrist mended. The difference between the Flyers in Game 7, when Pronger played a regular shift and they put away Buffalo with relative ease, and after he went up the runway for good late in Game 1 of the sweep by Boston was palpable.
The Flyers are 5-4-1 minus Pronger this season, not a pace that is going to leave them anything more than in the pack scrambling for eighth place when he returns in January. So some serious stepping up has to take place starting Friday night in Anaheim.
Hes a hard guy to replace, said general manager Paul Holmgren. Kimmo Timonen has to get better, Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle, Mez Andrej Meszaros, the guys with experience have to be better and the young guys have to hold their own.
The Flyers best young guy, Erik Gustafsson, is out another five weeks, as is their worst old guy, Andreas Lilja. Getting back two top-six forwards, Jaromir Jagr and James van Riemsdyk, possibly as early as Saturday in Phoenix, will help, but not in the Flyers end where both those guys need a GPS to find their man.
Lilja has struggled enough and Pronger will be out long enough to paste Holmgrens cell to his ear. Yesterday, the GM said pretty much what all general managers say when people are screaming: Do Something!
People I talk to, everybody is looking for a defenseman now, not looking to trade one. said Holmgren.
That would change if Holmgren wanted to offer a core young forward. Maybe it shouldnt take one more Pronger injury after this one, jeopardizing his playoff involvement for a second straight year, for a GM who was bold enough to trade Mike Richards and Jeff Carter in one summer, to get daring again. As presently constituted, the 2011-12 Flyers stand a good chance of proving both too young up front and too old on the backline at the same time.
They didnt have to hold their breath about turning their locker room over to Pronger, only about whether he actually would be in that locker room enough. The Flyers moved as they did to clean out their captaincy problem without anticipation of them having to clean out the knee of their leader, but so it goes when a 37 year old is your most essential player and 36-year-old Timonen again becomes first in command along the blueline.
Weve been without Pronger now for a little bit now, said Peter Laviolette. So I think things remain the same.
The guys that come up and fill in, and the guys who have been here and maybe taken on more responsibility, its nothing new.
Actually, its getting a little old, as it did with Mark Howe at the end, when declining Flyers teams wound up waiting for Godot, their future Hall of Famer walked in a therapy pool with a chronic bad back.
Weve rather Pronger in there because thats why we named him the captain originally, said Laviolette. Now that hes not, theres no lack of leadership in this dressing room.
Kimmos been a captain. Danny Brieres been a captain. Jaromir has been a terrific example and terrific leader. Max Talbot, Jody Shelley, Matty Carle weve got experienced guys that can help out.
Leadership is about 20 percent what you say and 80 percent what you can do. While those Flyers were utterly lost without Howe, these Flyers are just that much more mistake prone without Pronger.
All that said, better now than in March. There still is undeniable time for Pronger to heal, and a mid-season sample from last year to prove the Flyers can keep a decent pace without him.
We lost him (in 2010-11) with 30 games to go, when everybody is firing on all cylinders, said Holmgren. Games just become difficult to win.
They are even harder to win when you have a splintered locker room, besides. But leadership shouldnt be lacking as much as 24-25 minutes a game of inventive passes out of the Flyers end, a shot from the point, a presence in front of their net, and all the space Pronger has earned over 18 seasons.
Jay Greenberg covered the Flyers for 14 years for the Daily News and Evening Bulletin. His history of the Flyers, Full Spectrum, was published in 1996. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.