Will Pronger Be Ready? D-Man's Health Still Among Flyers' Big Questions

Will Pronger Be Ready? D-Man's Health Still Among Flyers' Big Questions

Amidst a whirlwind Flyers off-season that has seen significant roster turnover, Chris Pronger's health may still be the most significant question facing the team heading into the 2011-2012 season.

A week or so after The Trades went down, I was looking at the current Flyers roster, trying to get an idea of what the team might look like come October and throughout the season. With the known quantities having left town in Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, along with Ville Leino, Kris Versteeg, Brian Boucher, Dan Carcillo, and Nikolay Zherdev, we have a lot to learn about the guys who will replace them on the ice and in the locker room.

Can Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds build on their successes in Columbus and LA, respectively, and bring their games to a higher level in Philly?

How long will it take Brayden Schenn to emerge as the star (or at least 'very good player') he projects to be?

Will Ilya Bryzgalov provide elite goaltending the likes of which we haven't seen since Bernie Parent (which is to say, for many of us, never seen)?

Does Jaromir Jagr have any dominance left in the tank?

Will the Briere line continue to be successful without Leino?

How much Lappy does Maxim Talbot have in him?

Can a strong defense improve on last year's play and be more consistent?

A big part of that last question is the health of Chris Pronger, whose 2010-2011 season and playoffs were disrupted by a series of injuries with long recovery periods. Coming out of the playoff loss to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins, before we (or at least I) had any speck of an idea that Richards and Carter might be traded, we knew that Pronger's recovery from injuries and surgery would be a big question mark at the start of the next season. After all of the above questions made headlines for the better part of a month, the Pronger Question still looms large.

I've already written on that topic in my post-mortem on the Flyers' ridiculously disappointing, premature death in the playoffs. Feel free to read on that here (it's right after I say I don't see the Richards-Laviolette problem being a big deal, and that Richie isn't question for me heading into the off-season…).

Yesterday, Pronger provided his second media availability of the off-season, checking in on a conference call with the local hockey bards. I've pasted the transcript of that call below, along with my thoughts on a few of the responses (in italics).

Q: How are you feeling and what’s going on?

“I’m doing ok. I am starting to feel a little bit better and do a little bit more in the gym. I was cleared to start riding the bike a little bit harder, but have yet to be cleared to start lifting weights though.”
 
Q: What is a daily routine like for you now compared to what it should be like?
 
“I usually get into the gym and walk on the treadmill for 10 minutes and then I ride the bike for anywhere between 30 to 40 minutes, and have over the last couple weeks slowly started to increase the wattage or tension on the bike, and I am starting to get up there. I get a pretty good sweat now and my heart rate gets up there so I am starting to get fairly close to where I would probably ride at. I have yet to begin doing sprint work or anything like that.  From there I go into some core work for probably another 30 minutes, and work on my back and my core and everything I need to do to tighten up to work on my back rehab.  And then depending on the day I’ll go do legs or I’ll do some light shoulder work. ”

So, while still a ways away from being able to put in a full workout, Pronger is doing significantly more cardio than I am.
 
Q: What concerns you the most right now, where you have to be in terms of training camp?
 
“Well, that would be strength. I haven’t lifted a weight in the last six months, so that would be the answer to your question of what haven’t I done, well, obviously lift weights. Strength, for my position and the way I play, is critical. So I’ve got to gain my strength back before I begin skating.”

Starting to get into the concerning stuff here. Pronger's as tough as they come, combining size with brute force. He's not going to lose his frame any time soon, but he's not going to be punishing anyone until his muscle is in order, and there's no telling when exactly that will be. The good news here is, as usual, Pronger is being candid and apparently pretty honest with himself about his progress and where he needs to be. It's about his health, and his own expectations. He doesn't seem to be fooling himself or trying to fool the rest of us by indicating any of this will be easy. He has a stepwise set of tasks in place before reaching his goal of being back to normal, rather than just racing toward normalcy, which can result in setbacks.
 
Q: The team made a lot of moves in the off-season, obviously, and you lost a lot of goals. What is your feeling on the makeover? Do you like the moves that were made?
 

“I think the biggest thing, [when] you look at offensive production and things of that nature, I think you need to look at projections and where guys are going to take their game with increased ice time, increased power play time, things of that nature. Obviously, with the addition of [Jaromir] Jagr, you’re hopefully going to get 50 or 60 points out of him.  [Claude Giroux], who knows where he takes his game to.  [James van Riemsdyk] scratched the surface last year in the playoffs and hopefully he comes back and is able to take his game to the next level. Wayne Simmonds can come in and provide 15 or 20 goals on the wing.  [Jakub] Voracek coming in, he should be able to supply some offense. We lose a lot in [Michael Richards] and [Jeff Carter] and [Ville Leino] but I think you gain some of that back through the improved play and increased ice time, power play and what not for those other guys I mentioned. And then really the style of play. We don’t want to be in shootouts.  We don’t want to play in games that are 8-7.  We want to be able to rely on our goaltender and our defense, which is where we’re built, and our youth up front, get skating, get physical, get in on the play and create turnovers and things of that nature.”

A realistic and comfortingly optimistic assessment of what the Flyers are facing in turning over their lineup. They lose some sure things, but gain some pieces that may help them play more within their system. The point total for Jagr is obviously interesting and indicates a confidence that Jags can still play at a high level. With 50-60 points, he'd have been in the Leino range (53) last season, and not far behind Carter and Richards (66 each)—for $3.3 million. Whether Jagr will actually tally that many obviously remains to be seen, but we'll gladly take it if so. Also implied here is a confidence in the goaltending and team defense's ability to stabilize games, rather than the team trying to merely outscore a team in a more chaotic 60 minutes of end-to-end skating. More
on his thoughts regarding the Bryzalov in a minute.
 
Q: Getting back to your back, where are you now compared to where you usually are this time of year? Do you see yourself trying to speed up the process or are you going to take it slower and whenever you get on the ice, you get on the ice?
 
“I’m not going to speed up the process one bit. It’s going to go how it goes.   Normally at this time of year I would have already had 2 months of strength training. I usually start kind of curtailing that a little bit and do more cardio.  Now I have been doing all cardio and no lifting, so it’s kind of a little bit backwards. I need to obviously do a lot of lifting to get my body back to where it needs to be and the shape it needs to be to be able to play an 82 game schedule, and 25-30 minutes a game, the way I play.”

Again, while I wish he were already strength training and all that stuff, it's better that he's not if his body isn't ready. The good news here is that there's no indication he's rushing anything. In a league where nearly every decent team makes the playoffs, it's more important Pronger is healthy in the spring than ready ready in the fall.
 
Q: Realistically when do you think you will be able to be on the ice?
 
“Well I could use the same line I have used a couple times but I won’t. I don’t know. I haven’t started lifting weights yet so I don’t know how my body is going to respond and what kind of strength I am going to have and all the rest of that. Until I get to the gym and start lifting weights I really couldn’t tell you.”
 
Q: Have you been told when you can start lifting weights?
 
“I was told by the hand doctor I could lift in another week, possibly.”
 
Q: Is the lifting weight problem the hand or the back or a combination of both?
 
“No, it would be the hand.”
 
Q: You did say 82 games. Is that a possibility, or a remote possibility, you could be ready on opening day?
 
“Again, I don’t know. The goal is to be ready for Game 1 of the regular season. I am starting to progress.  I think Homer [Paul Holmgren] talked maybe last week about I was in seeing the doctor about a week and a half ago and I was kind of cleared then to progress my cardio and things like that, and grab light weights and do some shoulder work and stuff like that. Once I get cleared, I can start getting into a full lifting program and all the rest of that.  Again, it’s how my body reacts and how I feel that dictates when I start to skate and where we go from there.”
 
And there's the quote that launched a thousand headlines. Many outlets, local and national, picked up the story based on the "Ready for Game 1" goal, but based on everything else Pronger's said here, it's kind of irrelevant at this point. Hell, one sentence before it, he says he doesn't know, and that reality is more important than what his goal is. For most of the call, he indicated that getting back up to speed and strength were the goals. If those happen by game 1, then he'll be out there. If not, I don't see him overextending his rehab to be on the ice on any specific date.

One interesting (though not necessarily pressing) question though is whether the uncertainty as to Pronger's status for the start of the season will affect the captaincy decision, which has yet to be announced despite the roster being fairly well set.

Q: Do you have pain now?
 
“Just sitting here talking to you guys, I have no pain.  Other than my brain.”

Heyyyy there he is.
 
Q: Are you confident the problem has been fixed?
 
“I am. I am, yeah. I hope so. That is the idea when you have these surgeries, that it’ll be fixed for good.  But we do play a physical game and you know, we’ll see, but as I’ve said I am starting to feel a little bit better.  You start rounding the corner, you’re able to ride the bike a little bit harder, you start to feel a little bit better about yourself, and you start get your energy level back and those sorts of things. You start to really kind of push yourself in the gym a little bit more, and as I said, once I start lifting weights I’ll be able to push myself even harder and see how I react and feel.”
 
Q: Could you talk about [Ilya] Bryzgalov a little bit and what he does with the defense especially. Are you excited to play in front of him?
 
“Yeah, I am. I’ve seen him kind of mature over the last five or six years since I was with him in Anaheim, and you know he’s kind of taken his game to the next level, and how he’s played in Phoenix and kind of carried their team to the playoffs. I think we play a very similar defensive style as they did there, very tight defensively, and I’d like to think we play pretty sound defensively as well. I don’t think he’s going to be getting 35-40 shots a night, but you know, 20-25 shots a night.  He is just going to have to stay sharp and stay focused. If he plays the way he did in Phoenix we’ll certainly be pleased.”
 
Except, ya know, better in the playoffs and all that.

Q: How healed up is your hand?
 
“My hand I guess would be about 80% healed, maybe 85% healed. I had the plate removed, so I’m just waiting for the screw holes to fill in.”
 
Q: You seem to be the main recruiter. What do you tell the guys coming on to a new team with so much turnover?
 
“Well, I only talked to one guy. I talked to guys after the trade, so I wouldn’t say I recruited them.  But I speak about the ownership and the management and the coaching staff and about the players that are with the team, and talk about what the coach has been selling, what he’s preaching.  You know, obviously Mr. Snider, what he has done for this team speaks for itself and the moves that Homer’s made, and Lavi’s coaching.  You just talk about the personnel.  [Jaromir] Jagr was over in Europe for the past three years so he hasn’t seen [James] van Riemsdyk or [Claude] Giroux, he hasn’t seen some of these guys.  So you just talk about what type of players they are and about the defense we have and how we play.  He obviously knows Bryz.  Really I was just answering his questions. He was just trying to make up his mind and he had a decision to make and he had a lot of questions to be answered, and I just answered them for him.”
 
Q: Physically how do you feel and how much do you have left in the tank?
 
“Again, I don’t really know that you could say I was breaking down, with broken bones and being hit by pucks and all the rest of that. Those are all the things that can sometimes be avoided.  Perhaps now I may not block as many shots. I may just get out of the way and let our million dollar goaltender stop those things.”

That's a point we made previously as well—having his hand busted up by a shot had nothing to do with Pronger's age. But, the back issue popping up after trying to return to action could very well indicate a durabi
lity issue…
 
Q: I guess I am just asking what your durability is?
 
“Well, if I’m going off of last year I guess I would call myself a band aid.  But I’ve got many other years where you could say I wasn’t a band aid. Sometimes you just have years where things don’t go your way. It was a quick turnaround last year… I played hurt in the playoffs, and had surgery, and was kind of set back in my training, and for whatever reason I had a couple bad breaks along the way and then the back came in. I don’t really know what happened with my back, if it was just a ticking time bomb or what. I don’t think anyone really knows how they hurt their back.  I would like to think I’m past all of this, but again, we’ll see how I react once I start lifting weights and pushing myself a little bit harder.”
 
Q: Did that make it even more important to take your time with this? I am sure you talked to other players who have gone through some things like this and the remedy is to take your time.
 
“Yeah, I think all along I have told Homer, I told Lavi, I told you guys and anyone that’s asked that I’m gonna take my time and make sure I was doing everything that was necessary rehab-wise and what, not whether it be rest or recuperation or whatever it is, to make sure whatever injuries I did have last year were going to be healed up and fully healed and allow me to be healthy whenever it was that I started skating and began playing again, that I was going to be able to go 100% and not look back.”
 
Q: Do you think as much time as you missed last year might have re-energized you?
 
“Sometimes it can. You have to use the time wisely.  For the first little while I couldn’t do anything because of my back, for the first 6 weeks anyway. … everything else to recover as well – where you’re not running the bike, lifting weights, and doing all the rest of the stuff that normally you’re already back doing.  You’re able to allow your body to hopefully fully recover.  I like to think that taking that much time off will allow me to fully heal up and recover and be able to play another 82 game season."

*

To reiterate, despite all of the new questions facing the Flyers, Pronger's health remains one of the most significant. It's probably even more significant with all the new faces in town. Even with all the words pasted above, yesterday's call didn't shed a whole lot of light on the situation, but it could be worse. For now, we'll have to settle for no news being good news. His availability for game 1 really isn't the issue so much as his availability for the majority of the season and especially the postseason. 

As Aaron Altherr's audition begins, Pete Mackanin says Cody Asche 'needs to step it up'

As Aaron Altherr's audition begins, Pete Mackanin says Cody Asche 'needs to step it up'

ATLANTA — Nearly four months late, Aaron Altherr is finally getting his shot to show the Phillies he deserves to be part of their future outfield plans.

Altherr, 25, was activated from the disabled list before Thursday night’s game against the Braves and was in the lineup, batting fifth (see story). Altherr will see a lot of playing time over the final two-plus months of the season. He’s essentially auditioning.

“We want to see him play as much as possible,” manager Pete Mackanin said before the game. “So if he stays healthy, I’m going to keep running him out there. That’s what this year is all about. We’re finding out about the guys that are here. He is a potentially important part so we want to see what he does. I’m anxious to see what he does.”

Altherr, a ninth-round draft pick in 2009, played in 39 games for the Phillies last season. He hit just .241, but 20 of his 33 hits were for extra bases and he had a .827 OPS. He was slated to be the team’s everyday rightfielder before suffering a wrist injury that required surgery early in spring training.

Altherr is healthy now and eager for his chance.

“I’m good to go mentally and physically,” he said Thursday afternoon. “I’m definitely excited to be back up.”

Altherr took Peter Bourjos' spot on the roster. Bourjos was placed on the disabled list with a sprained right shoulder two days after running into the outfield wall in Miami.

With Mackanin committed to giving Altherr playing time, it will be interesting to see how the skipper divides up playing time with the remaining outfielders, especially when Bourjos recovers. Bourjos was a trade candidate before his injury. He could still be moved in a waiver deal once he’s healthy in August. Tyler Goeddel, Cody Asche and Jimmy Paredes also play corner outfield spots and much heralded prospect Nick Williams is expected to be here at some point (see Future Phillies Report).

Asche is walking a tightrope. He entered Thursday night’s game mired in a 4-for-51 skid and Mackanin seems to be losing patience.

“As I said earlier in the season, this is a very big year for Cody to prove that he can be part of the future and he needs to step it up,” Mackanin said.

Jason Peters impressed by Doug Pederson, questions Chip Kelly

Jason Peters impressed by Doug Pederson, questions Chip Kelly

Heading into his 13th season, Jason Peters has experienced a lot during his exceptional NFL career. So when the eight-time Pro Bowler says head coach Doug Pederson is more respectful of veteran players than the previous regime under Chip Kelly, you take notice.

"I think so," Peters stated frankly on Thursday at training camp. "The last couple years, there wasn't a lot of vets, and any vet that stood up and had something to say, we got rid of him.

"Doug was a player here, he understands veteran players and he understands the game, so I think it's better."

Addressing the media for the first time since last season, Peters faced a series of questions about how Pederson differs from his unique predecessor. Schemes and philosophies were topics of discussion, as well, but perhaps the sharpest criticism levied by Peters was Kelly's lack of appreciation for what an NFL player goes through to be ready on Sunday.

"Any time you've got a coach who's been there, done that, he knows about the trenches and he knows about the two-a-days, it definitely helps with a veteran team as a whole," Peters said.

Peters admitted Kelly's practices took their toll on players. If that sounds like a familiar complaint, it's probably because former Eagles cornerback Cary Williams voiced a similar opinion in 2014. On Thursday, Peters echoed and expanded upon Williams' sentiments.

"The same practices that we did in training camp were the same spring practices, exactly the same, so it's pretty much we had training camp the whole offseason," Peters said. "Even OTAs were the same exact practice. It kind of wore us down."

Peters also maintained the unusual practice schedule during the regular season was no help, either.

Most teams practice Monday and take Tuesday off. Kelly did the opposite, so there was no real break leading up to gameday.

"We practiced on Tuesdays when Chip was here, and you felt it on Sundays," Peters said. "I did anyway."

Pederson has mentioned on several occasions the Eagles intend to do everything they can to keep Peters fresh and prepared for Sundays this season, which the 34-year-old says is "just being smart." One way that could manifest itself is an occasional day off during the week.

Although Peters' criticisms of Kelly weren't limited to the workload on veterans, the left tackle indicated the constant uptempo attack may not have done the offense many favors, either.

"If you run 100 times in a row, back to back to back, don't you think your 50th time you're going to be a little slower?" Peters asked. "But if you get a little bit of a rest, you're going to be a little bit faster.

"It's give and take. When you go back to the huddle and you get that wind, you're just a little stronger when you go back to the line, so I think it will help."

Peters added that the simplicity and predictability of Kelly's system became a problem, as well.

"I mean, this is the National Football League, and if the running back is to the left and you're running the zone read, where do you think the ball is going?" Peters asked rhetorically. "To the right.

"They caught up to us. We had some good years there back to back, then last year we had that down year. We just needed to change a little bit up, especially with [quarterback Sam Bradford] back there. They know he's not gonna run it, so it kind of put our hands behind our back."

While Peters believes the return to a more sophisticated, traditional NFL offense under Pederson — one that uses snap counts and chip blocks to help its offensive linemen — will be an enormous improvement for the Eagles.

Peters knows it's on the players to do a better job in 2016, too. At the same time, he feels as though the deck might've been just a little stacked against them.

"We can't really blame it on that, we're professionals," Peters said.

"[The coaches] call the play, and we execute it. But when the [opponents] know, and they're professionals too, and they know what the play is, it's tough."

Eagles camp Day 4 notes: Brandon Brooks out; starting O & D

Eagles camp Day 4 notes: Brandon Brooks out; starting O & D

As the Eagles kicked off their first full-squad practice in the bubble on Thursday afternoon, a big part of the offense was missing. 

Starting right guard Brandon Brooks was nowhere to be found. In his place, with the first-team offense, was veteran Stefen Wisniewski. 

Brooks, who signed a five-year, $40 million deal to join the Eagles this offseason, missed practice with a hamstring injury and is listed by the team as day-to-day. 

The only other player that missed practice is running back Ryan Mathews, who is on the Active/Non-football Injury list with an ankle injury he suffered while training last week. 

Offensive starters
Thursday’s light afternoon practice was what Andy Reid used to call a “10-10-10” practice. The term is back under Doug Pederson. Basically, it’s a light practice that goes continually through offense, defense and special teams. But it’s not very conducive for observations because of the format, which is meant to allow the offense or defense to look good. 

But we did get a chance to see the starting units. 

Here’s what the first-team offense (they came out in 11 personnel) looked like to start practice: 

QB: Sam Bradford
RB: Darren Sproles (Mathews was out)
TE: Zach Ertz
WR1: Nelson Agholor
WR2: Chris Givens
Slot: Jordan Matthews
LT: Jason Peters
LG: Allen Barbre
C: Jason Kelce
RG Stefen Wisniewski (Brooks was out)
RT: Lane Johnson

Notes: It’s worth noting that Matthews is still working in the slot way more than he is outside. And Givens, after a nice spring, got the nod to work outside with the first team.

Defensive starters
The defense first came onto the field in the nickel package, so we’ll start there: 

LDE: Vinny Curry
RDE: Connor Barwin
LDT: Fletcher Cox
RDT: Bennie Logan
LB: Jordan Hicks
LB: Mychal Kendricks
LCB: Leodis McKelvin
RCB: Nolan Carroll
Slot: Ron Brooks
S: Malcolm Jenkins
S: Rodney McLeod

Notes: We listed the defense in nickel, but when the Eagles were in base, Nigel Bradham was on the field as the strongside linebacker. The most important thing to note is that when the team was in base, Ron Brooks stayed on the field and moved outside. That’s what the team did most of the spring and it hasn’t changed yet. We’ll have to keep an eye on that. 

North Dakota’s hero
Earlier this week, there were several reporters and a TV crew from North Dakota to watch the progress of their hometown hero Carson Wentz. Wentz said it was cool to see some familiar media faces, especially because he knows how closely fans in his home state are still following his career. 

The rookie hasn’t been home much recently, so he wasn’t sure if the buzz has died down at all since the draft, but he suspects there are many more Eagles fans at home now. 

“I know now that football season is starting to kick up, it’s starting to heat up back home,” he said. “Everyone’s all interested in the Eagles, more than just the local teams around there. It’s pretty exciting. Exciting time for the state of North Dakota, for sure.” 

Odds and ends
• We’ll start with Wentz, who made a great toss on Thursday down the field about 40 yards to shifty wideout Paul Turner. Just a beautiful ball from the rookie. 

• Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Jalen Mills made another play. This time, he was able to get between the ball and Jordan Matthews near the right sideline. Perfect coverage. If he keeps this up once the pads go on Saturday, he’ll earn some playing time this season. 

• Jason Peters spoke for the first time this year after Thursday’s practice. We’ll have plenty on his thoughts and comments, but here’s what stuck out to me: he really didn’t like the way Chip Kelly did some things. He clearly didn’t like the tempo offense or Kelly’s management style. When asked, Peters agreed that Pederson’s staff is way more veteran player-friendly. 

“Any vet that stood up and had something to say, we got rid of him,” Peters said. Yikes. 

• Sproles, Agholor and Rueben Randle worked as the punt returners on Thursday. Obviously, Sproles is the guy, but this gives us an idea of the depth there. 

• Pads go on Saturday. 

• The first open practice (of two) is this Sunday at the Linc at 10 a.m. No tickets needed, just show up.