Could the Flyers bring back Chris Pronger?

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Could the Flyers bring back Chris Pronger?

Chris Pronger has been called a lot of things in nearly 25 years in the NHL.

Leader. Dirty. Tough. Nasty. Hard-nosed. In your face and even old school.

“I might’ve been old school, but it doesn’t mean I see the game that way,” Pronger, now working in Florida’s front office, said before to Thursday’s Flyers-Panthers game. “As the game has adapted from when I first came into the league — there were no bench-clearing brawls, there was no hooking and holding — I was supposedly going to be a dinosaur. I’m my opinion, I got better.”

Perhaps better, but certainly wiser throughout an 18-year career. Engaging and at times intimidating, Pronger always seemed to have a much more practical side to him.

After spending three years in the NHL’s Department of Player Safety and still being compensated from the seven-year extension he signed with the Flyers in June 2009, Pronger was essentially an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his professional hockey career this past summer.

After a few meetings and discussions with Panthers management — which included former Flyers executive Peter Luukko — Pronger agreed on a one-year contract as the team’s senior advisor of hockey operations. 

“I counsel and advise on various matters related to the hockey operations side,” Pronger said. “I’m more players and personnel and what I know about certain players, what I think of them, how they play, relate it to today’s game. Just kind of give my feedback on what I see. You take it for what it’s worth.

“You try to be a sounding board at times for some of the players. I’ve had a chance to interact with some of them, get to know them a little more on a personal level, learn what makes them tick and try and learn how they can be pushed, prodded and poked to be better. Some are like me and some are not. Everybody’s different so you got to learn that through interactions and talking with them.”

The job is also perfectly tailored to Pronger’s family life. He still resides in St. Louis and only attends a handful of Panthers games. On top of player management, he occasionally scouts, and with that, he can easily commute just about anywhere in North America within a three-hour flight.

However, ask Pronger where he sees himself in the next three-to-five years and he has absolutely no clue, only reiterating a desire to become a general manager someday. 

“I would like to,” Pronger said. “As a player, I could project that far out and tell you what I was going to do, but right now, I got a one-year contract here and I’m going to do my duties and proceed as planned this year. I’ll do the best I can for Dale (Tallon) and this organization and then we’ll see what happens after that.”  

Which is why Pronger would prove to be a valuable asset somewhere on Ron Hextall’s staff. Not because of his Hextall-like demeanor on the ice or that he was born to wear the orange and black, as former Ducks GM Brian Burke once stated. Pronger and Hextall haven’t discussed any future position, and with Hextall in Buffalo for the World Junior Championships this week, the two former Flyers didn’t have the opportunity to talk in person.

But Pronger brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to an organization in a transitional phase, especially defensively with their younger prospects. He’s worked briefly with Samuel Morin, who's drawn comparisons to Pronger, and has been credited for getting Aaron Ekblad’s career back on track.

Understandably, he’s more discerning of today’s players. 

“I just think they’re different. They’ve all grown up differently,” Pronger said. “I grew up in the non-internet age. So, I didn’t know who anybody was. I got my information out of Hockey Digest, my once-a-week manual in what’s going on in the NHL.

“You adapt, as players you adapt. You got to see where the trends are going, where the game is going and try and get out in front of it.”

Now the pressure really picks up for Dave Hakstol, Flyers

Now the pressure really picks up for Dave Hakstol, Flyers

Dave Hakstol lifted his arm effortlessly with his hand steadily inclining toward the ceiling, almost portraying the takeoff of an airplane.

He was discussing the timeline for young hockey players, which his Flyers have a lot of and will gain only more as the blocks are stacked one by one.

And as the head coach digested a topsy-turvy, season-ending loss, his demonstration depicted what he knew wasn't the case.

"You always want development to be this smooth path and this smooth climb; it doesn't work that way," Hakstol said. "It's kind of a jagged climb, and as long as you're seeing a steady push to improve, then you stick with it and keep pushing in that direction."

The Flyers have been allowed to hit those jagged edges on their climb, like Sunday's 8-5 Game 6 defeat to the Penguins (see story). It was the final swing (and miss) in a best-of-seven first-round playoff matchup with the two-time defending champs, another cut along the grand hike for the Flyers.

But with it came a signal.

This is no longer the bottom of the mountain. The trek has been underway for three seasons and the long view should, expectedly, be coming into focus. In 2018-19, Hakstol will enter the fourth year of a five-year contract, according to The Flyers' core, looking at its peak, will be a year older, as will the foundation pieces, already here and being counted on to drive things forward. 

The Flyers played four rookies in the playoffs, while five of their top eight regular-season goal scorers were 25 years old or younger. 

"For the most part, I liked the growth of our young guys," Hakstol said. "I think they had an opportunity to really see some tough points during the year and figure out how to be a part of battling out of them. They had the opportunity to play through and be part of a playoff push that other teams weren't going away, and we knew that with eight to 10 games to go, we knew that we would have to win our way in. So they had the opportunity to be a part of that and gain that experience of understanding and knowing how hard that is. And they were successful in that."

It resulted in 42 wins and 98 points during the regular season, both highs under Hakstol, surpassing the 41 and 96 set in Year 1. It also led to another first-round exit, the second under Hakstol against a topflight opponent. In those series, the Flyers went 1-5 at home, where they were outscored 26-9.

Harsh yet clear reminders the Flyers aren't where they want to be.

The Penguins, no duh, are. 

"We're working to build toward something like that," Wayne Simmonds said. "I thought we took a step in the right direction this year."

Claude Giroux, the 102-point, 30-year-old captain, sees it, too.

"I know for a fact that we got better as the season went on," Giroux said. "Look at our team last year and look at our team this year. We improved a lot."

While patience is always of the essence with general manager Ron Hextall, Year 4 will demand much more, unlike seasons past. This is Hakstol's team — the blocks are in place, both old and now not so new.

"There's going to be a lot of good and a lot of things that we'll say, 'Hey, these are good steps for our team,'" Hakstol said of this season. "End of the day, we didn't come into this playoff series to make steps, though."

That undoubtedly won't be the objective in 2018-19. It can't be, and the Flyers should know it.

Flyers' result shouldn't impact how Couturier's heroic effort is remembered

Flyers' result shouldn't impact how Couturier's heroic effort is remembered

Sean Couturier was still standing, somehow, when he let it slip.

Torn MCL, right knee, no surgery needed but normally a four-week healing period (see story).

“It wasn’t the ideal situation,” Couturier said. “I didn’t really feel a whole lot. I was just giving everything I got and not really thinking about it. But there were times I could feel it pretty bad.”

Most of the time, this story comes with a happy ending, after a month-long triumph. It’s the type grandparents tell their grandchildren, and it’s what makes the Stanley Cup Playoffs so great.

That’s not what this is. There is no grand finale here. The Flyers’ season is over. It ended Sunday night bitterly with a sour-tasting 8-5 loss to the Penguins in Game 6 at the Wells Fargo Center.

It’s a story, though, to remember, an all-time great individual effort on one leg that wasn’t enough. The Flyers’ result should not impact how we tell Couturier’s story going forward.

“He’s a warrior,” Wayne Simmonds said. “The things he’s done this year and the way he handled himself after missing a game there, he came back and was the best player on the ice.”

Couturier delivered his second career postseason hat trick and became just the fifth Flyer in franchise history to register a five-point playoff game with three goals and two assists.

With the Flyers’ back up against the wall, Couturier, nursing a “lower-body” injury far more severe than initially believed, put his teammates on his back and carried the weight.

The 25-year-old finished with 20 minutes and 5 seconds of ice time, not nearly where he was in the first three games of the series but four more minutes than Game 5, his first game back.

“He gave us a chance to win that game,” Flyers captain Claude Giroux said. “I know I said it before; I have a lot of respect for that guy. He’s one of our leaders. Our season is on the line, and he played a great game.”

On Friday, Couturier’s heroics forced the series back to Philly when he scored the game-winner in the final minutes of regulation. To the naked eye, it was hard to notice anything different.

There were limitations, but he had an impact. Then on Sunday, he raised his level of compete and almost single-handedly beat the two-time defending champs in a do-or-die situation.

“With Coots, there’s a real mental toughness there in terms of being able to focus on the job at hand,” coach Dave Hakstol said. “He had to change the way he went about his job a little bit.”

The torn MCL limited Couturier’s mobility and he said he let his wingers do the work when they had the puck. But it was Couturier who scored his first by crashing the net, and it was Couturier who showcased a power move to score on a breakaway.

After his five-point game Sunday, Couturier now has 13 career playoff points against Pittsburgh in 11 games with two hat tricks.

Last spring, Couturier asked for a larger role offensively and the Flyers rewarded him with one. He paid them back with a 31-goal, 76-point season.

“I think I showed I can produce in this league offensively,” he said. “I don’t think I really changed the type of game I play. I still take pride in defense. It’s just about getting more opportunities.”

And on Sunday, Couturier demonstrated one more thing.

He can produce in this league, on one leg, with his team on life alert.