(Ed. Note: It’s the NHL Alternate History project! We’ve asked fans and bloggers from 31 teams to pick one turning point in their franchise’s history and ask ‘what if things had gone differently?’ Trades, hirings, firings, wins, losses, injuries … all of it. How would one different outcome change the course of history for an NHL team? Today: Kelly Hinkle from Broad Street Hockey on the Philadelphia Flyers!)
By Kelly Hinkle
As a Philadelphia Flyers fan, one lives life navigating a minefield of ‘what-ifs.’
I’ve been following this team since the mid-90s, and in that time the team has rarely been actually bad. They’re usually close – really close – to being a team that can win a Cup. And it’s the closeness that really makes us suffer. Because it seems like every failed season, every playoff exit, every massive disappointment hangs on one or two small events. One or two things that, had they gone the other way, the Flyers would’ve been marching down Broad Street.
What if Eric Lindros had kept his head up more? What if the Flyers signed Curtis Joseph? What if Peter Laviolette picked a goalie and stuck with him? My head hurts just thinking about it. But in the last ten years,
I think there is one event that, if it had gone differently, would’ve changed things in a major way:
What if Chris Pronger had never gotten hurt?
Pronger came to the Flyers on the first day of the 2009 Entry Draft, in a trade which sent the now-unremarkable Joffrey Lupul and Luca Sbisa to Anaheim along with two first round picks. At the time, Lupul was a 25-goal scorer and Sbisa was thought to be a pretty highly-rate prospect, so there was some concern about sending that all away for a 34-year old defenseman with one year left on his contract. But all it took was one press conference for Chris to win over Flyers fans (it’s not hard, just tell us you love us) and just a few days after the trade, GM Paul Holmgren signed Pronger to a seven year extension that ensured Chris Pronger would retired in the orange and black.
At that point, the stage was set. The Flyers were a team pretty loaded with young front-end talent and now they had one of the best defensemen in the league anchoring the blueline. And it worked! The Flyers made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in Pronger’s first season with the team – that was kind of Chris’ thing, dragging his new team to the Final – and despite losing to the Blackhawks in six games, the future was bright for the Flyers. Pronger played only 50 games that next season, due to a number of injuries, most notably to his knee. The Flyers lost in the second round to the Bruins, and it was on to the offseason. Despite falling short in the 2010-2011 season, this was still a team with a talented young core and a relatively solid defense.
We were still good, right?
Well uh … Paul Holmgren blew up the team that offseason, but that’s a whole other set of ‘what-ifs.’
The Flyers headed into the following season with Chris Pronger as their new captain and a whole new set of talented young forwards on which we all could hang our hopes and dreams. Any optimism that Flyers fans had that season was short-lived, as just 8 games into the season Pronger took a stick up high from Toronto Maple Leafs’ center Mikhail Grabovski and things were never the same. After the November 19 game against the Jets, Pronger would never play again.
But what if that never happened? It’s an interesting question, because there are a number of terrible decisions made by the Flyers that can be traced directly to the loss of Chris Pronger, but there are also a number of pretty dang good things that are currently happening on this team as a result of losing Chris Pronger.
In typical Philadelphia fashion, let’s start with the bad.
With a hole in the defense and Pronger out for the season, Paul Holmgren needed to pick up a defensemen to fill his place. On February 16, 2012, the Flyers acquired Nicklas Grossmann from the Dallas Stars in exchange for a 2012 second-round pick and 2013 third-round pick. With one of those picks, Dallas selected Devin Shore, who broke into the NHL last season putting up 33 points in 82 games. Dallas traded the third round pick, along with Brenden Morrow, to Pittsburgh. The Penguins used that pick to land Jake Guentzel, who went absolutely nuts this year in the playoffs.
Without a Grossmann trade, it is entirely possible the Flyers end up with these two players.
The Flyers made it into playoffs in 2012 without Pronger, upsetting the Pittsburgh Penguins in one of the most exciting playoff series in recent memory. But in the second round, the New Jersey Devils exposed each and every hole in the Flyers’ Pronger-less defense. With a healthy Pronger to bolster their defensive core, the Flyers might have made it past the Devils and into the Conference Finals against the Rangers. Who knows what butterfly effect could’ve happened with the Devils if we beat them! Maybe they never move on from Zach Parise or Ilya Kovalchuk or David Clarkson. But we’re here to talk about the Flyers. Back to that. (Oh, and h/t to fellow BSHer Joe Pergola for helping me down this particular rabbit hole.)
So we will put ourselves into a world in which the Flyers make it past the Devils with Pronger, and then beat the Rangers in six games (six feels right). This sets up a Stanley Cup Final against Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and the LA Kings. Imagine the excitement! But it definitely would’ve ended with Carter or Richards scoring an OT winner to knock the Flyers off and claim a Cup for LA. Because in Philadelphia we only accept only the most heartbreaking of heartbreaks and we’re trying to keep it at least a little realistic here.
But in real life, after another second round exit, Paul Holmgren looked to shore up his defense by trading for…Luke Schenn. In a vacuum, picking up a fifth-overall pick defenseman seems like a great idea, but the Flyers gave up second-overall pick James Van Riemsdyk, to whom the Flyers never really seemed to give a fair shot. This past season, Van Riemsdyk’s 62 points would’ve lead the Flyers, who struggled to score all season. In hindsight, keeping JVR and allowing him to develop here instead of in Toronto would’ve been the better move.
Prior to trading for Schenn, the Flyers picked up Mark Streit and Andrew MacDonald. Neither of those trades was particularly bad, but Paul Holmgren wound up signing each of these guys to massive contracts that they absolutely did not deserve. If he’s not trying to fill up that very large Pronger-shaped hole, the Flyers wouldn’t be stuck with the $5 million anchor that is Andrew MacDonald.
In what was probably the biggest move that resulted from the Pronger injury, Paul Holmgren threw an ENORMOUS offer sheet at Shea Weber in the summer of 2012, which Weber accepted. Thankfully Nashville matched – that’s a fun little what-if rabbit hole on its own, but oh man did the Flyers dodge a bullet there – but the move was the beginning of the end of Holmgren’s career as a general manager. Homer’s said that he found other NHL GMs unwilling to deal with him after the offer sheet and that was one of the reasons he stepped down.
So if we don’t lose Pronger, we never offer sheer Weber, and Paul Holmgren is likely still the general manager of this team.
We seem to have moved on to the good stuff.
Once it became clear that Pronger would not see the ice again, the team named Claude Giroux the 19th captain of the team, ushering in a new era for the club. The Flyers were able to part ways with Matt Carle, who was never terribly good, but would have likely been resigned given that he was Chris Pronger’s partner at the time. It’s better that the Lightning gave him $33 million instead of the Flyers.
Perhaps the biggest positive that came from losing Chris Pronger is that, under new general manager Ron Hextall, the team’s draft strategy shifted to rebuilding their very bad defense. Which has given us Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, and Sam Morin, just to name a few.
Would the Flyers have won a Cup if Pronger never took that Grabovski stick to the eye? It’s hard to say. Probably not, if we’re being honest.
But there’s one thing we know for sure in Philly: the future is bright for the Flyers, and it might’ve been a little bit dimmer if we lived in an alternate universe.