Chris Pronger's season-ending injury brings new immediacy to concussion issue

December, 16, 2011
12/16/11
12:14
AM ET

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun discuss the Philadelphia Flyers' options moving forward after the news of Chris Pronger's season-ending concussion injury:

Burnside: Greetings, my friend. Even with the seemingly endless parade of stars being sidelined with concussions, the news that Philadelphia Flyers captain and surefire Hall of Famer Chris Pronger was done for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs nonetheless remains somehow different and more stunning in its finality.

Perhaps it's that Pronger, 37, is such a significant personality. Perhaps it's that his presence in a game, like that of teammate Claude Giroux or Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby, represents one of those rare game-changing entities. Maybe it's the nagging thought that maybe this is it for Pronger, and if it is, what a sad way for it to end.

Regardless, Thursday stands as a day of great import for the Flyers, who must now consider how to chart a course toward a long-awaited Stanley Cup without their most important player. The coming days will be rife with rumor about whom the Flyers will target or how they will proceed, but the bottom line: A team that a few short weeks ago looked very much like a team built to win it all is today very much diminished.

Pronger
Andre Ringuette/Getty ImagesChris Pronger recently told reporters that he didn't know which specific hit triggered the concussion symptoms.

LeBrun: First and foremost, my thoughts are with Pronger, an absolute playoff warrior and one of the very best at his position in this era. We're talking Nicklas Lidstrom and Scott Niedermayer territory. Here's hoping this is not the last we've seen of him. I'm sure for Pronger, right now, the thought is to get through the next day given the severe post-concussion syndrome diagnosis, never mind worrying about his playing future. But, yes, the business of winning hockey games continues for the Flyers despite the emotional impact of Thursday night's announcement.

In the short term, a Flyers front-office source told ESPN.com Thursday night that, in the wake of the Pronger announcement, the team would not immediately pick up the phone and look for a trade solution. The source said the club was really happy right now with the play of young blueliners Marc-Andre Bourdon, Erik Gustafsson and Kevin Marshall, and added that the top four of Andrej Meszaros, Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn was as good as what most teams in the league have. So the sense right now is try to ride it out and see how the group responds.

In the long term, however, you have to figure the Flyers will take a closer look at what's available as the Feb. 27 trade deadline approaches given that they'll be able to go over the salary cap using Pronger's $4.9 million cap hit. If either Ryan Suter (UFA July 1) or Shea Weber (RFA July 1) is put on the trade market by Nashville, those would be obvious targets. I say "if" because the current plan in Nashville is to get both those players signed. Sergei Gonchar in Ottawa (one more season past this year on his contract at $5.5 million) could be another intriguing possibility. And then you've got Carolina, where the selling Hurricanes could eventually showcase three UFA-to-be blueliners in Tim Gleason, Jaroslav Spacek or Bryan Allen.

Burnside: It is the nature of sports that while we mourn the absence of one of the truly engaging athletes of this era (at least for the foreseeable future), we also immediately begin assessing how a player like Pronger can best be replaced and what this loss means for his team. Harsh, but true. Bottom line, of course, is you don't replace Chris Pronger just as you don't replace Giroux or Crosby or any of the game's elite players.

It won't be surprising that the Flyers will take some time to sort out where they're at before the trade deadline. They took the bad news and went out and beat the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre 4-3 on Thursday night (their seventh straight victory), so you know the Flyers are a team with no shortage of character in the dressing room. But you also know if there's a GM in the league with the chutzpah to pull off a deal that will help fill a Pronger-sized hole in his lineup, it's Paul Holmgren. No GM has been bolder in the past three or four seasons in overhauling his lineup in the hopes of building a Cup winner.

He brought in Pronger from Anaheim, he traded two of his top offensive stars, including his captain, and now he's lost his new captain. You can be darned sure Holmgren will be tireless in his efforts to plug that hole. Whether it's a Suter or Gonchar (not sure I like that fit, exactly) or someone else, I will be shocked if there isn't at least one more shockwave of a move coming out of Philly this season.

LeBrun: The other long-term implication here with Pronger is his contract. Because he was a 35-and-over player when his contract with the Flyers kicked in, it remains on the books regardless of whether he would retire. That's a $4.9 million annual cap hit for five more years past this season. However, as my TSN colleague Bob McKenzie cleverly pointed out during our show Thursday night, the Flyers could get around that should Pronger simply not officially retire and therefore the club could put him on LTI and go over the cap by as much as his $4.9 million hit. Then again, those are the current rules. The collective bargaining agreement expires in September, and who knows what new rules will govern these types of situations starting next season.

Burnside: In what has become the season of the injury, the loss of Pronger only further darkens the clouds that hover over the NHL and will put even more pressure on the league in explaining its efforts to make the game safer. The strange part of the Pronger injury is he recently told local reporters he can't even recall a specific blow to the head that might have triggered the concussion symptoms (other than Mikhail Grabovski's stick in late October that may or may not have played a role in this). To have the injury move so quickly to an emphatic diagnosis of post-concussion syndrome is sobering to say the least.

LeBrun: Scotty, I'll have more on the league's reaction to the recent spate of concussions in my weekend notebook on Friday, but I think the bombshell announcement on Pronger will only further emphasize the importance of teams taking the league's guidance and protocol on concussions very seriously. It's one thing for the league to have put these measures in place, including in-game concussion protocol testing, as well as the series of tests the players should be put through in the days and weeks after a head injury. But in my mind, it's truly up to each and every club to embrace the spirit of this effort if it is to reach its maximum impact versus what is easily the game's biggest threat right now.

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