Love him or hate him, Chris Pronger is one mean son of a something-or-other and when it comes to who you’d want manning your blueline in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, there are few who rival his presence.
Without a doubt, Pronger is a generational player and he seems to be getting better with age. The big guy has reached the 50-point plateau five times in his career, three of which came after the lockout and following his 30th birthday. Sure, the changes made after the lockout led to more scoring and power plays, which in turn led to more points from the blueline, but the new style of game was supposed to hurt guys like Pronger.
But there’s more to his continuing post-lockout ascension than just point production. Pronger’s greatness stems from how he adapted to the changes that were supposed to stop him and his ilk in their tracks. While players such as Derian Hatcher, Kyle McLaren and, to a lesser extent, Nick Boynton – once seen as big-body bruisers who could play a shutdown role – fell by the wayside, Pronger changed his ways and became a big-game winner and, undeniably, a leader.
“The (change in the) rules has been the big difference,” said Pronger in 2006. “You don’t have the same kind of battles anymore. You’re not allowed to cross-check or slash or do any of the stuff we used to get away with. You do it now and you’re in the box. You used to be able to get away with a lot, but now you can’t.”
There’s more to being a leader in the NHL than wearing the ‘C’ and talking to the referees. It’s also about how you carry yourself with a professional attitude and bring it to the arena every night. Pronger was captain of the St. Louis Blues for four seasons, but when he was traded to Edmonton in the summer of 2005, he joined a team that already had its leader in ‘Captain Canada,’ Ryan Smyth. Even though he didn’t wear the ‘C’ or even the ‘A,’ Pronger stepped up as if he did because, letter or not, he was the shoulder to lean on.
“We really put a lot of value in hockey sense and competitiveness and we think Chris Pronger doesn’t take a back seat to many players in the league, if any, when it comes to those two characteristics,” said then-Oilers GM Kevin Lowe in ’06. “No one really knew what would happen with the new rules, but he has been everything, times two, that we could have ever hoped for.”
But to see the real effect Pronger has on the teams he plays for, just look at what happens to them upon his addition and what the aftermath is when he leaves.
The Blues had an astounding 25 straight playoff appearances and although they never won the Cup, they were on a run of five-straight 90-plus point seasons in the early 2000s. St. Louis traded Pronger to Edmonton after the lockout and have one playoff appearance and zero post-season wins since.
The Oilers were a team that hadn’t won a playoff round since 1998 and missed the post-season altogether the season before Pronger’s arrival. But after squeaking into the 2006 playoffs as the eighth seed, the Oilers went all the way to the Cup final and, even though they lost their starting goalie in Game 1, still managed to push the Carolina Hurricanes to the seven-game limit.
Pronger made everyone on the Oilers better and controlled the play game in and game out, posting 21 points in 24 games. Even though his team ultimately fell short, a strong case could be made Pronger deserved the Conn Smythe Trophy that Carolina goalie Cam Ward won.
Pronger was traded – at his request – to Anaheim after that season and the Oilers haven’t returned to the post-season since and are now picking first overall at the draft.
Upon his landing in California, the Ducks immediately became favorites for the Cup. Anaheim had many of the same pieces in place as they had in 2006, when they fell hard in five games to Pronger’s Oilers in the conference final. But what happened? The Ducks posted their first 100-plus point season and Pronger, second on the squad with 15 points in 19 playoff games, finally got his first Stanley Cup.
The Ducks posted their second 100-point season the following year and were legitimate contenders in both 2008 and 2009, but the first year after losing Pronger they missed the playoffs, despite the fact they had seven Olympians on the roster.
And the Flyers? They added Pronger specifically for the playoffs. Philadelphia has been a solid team with a lot of depth since bottoming out in 2007, but couldn’t overcome the cream of the Eastern crop in getting bounced by Pittsburgh two years in a row. The Flyers stumbled and bumbled their way to a seventh-place finish this year, but once the post-season arrived they hit their stride. Pronger, who had three points in his final 10 regular season games, suddenly popped in five points in five games against the Devils and was back to his usual form, averaging three more minutes per game in the post-season than the regular season.
Four rounds deep, Pronger leads all defensemen in playoff scoring with 16 points, topping the performances of Chicago’s young pair of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, who are supposed to one day make old man Pronger obsolete.
Pronger is a winner and he wins with teams that weren’t raising banners before his arrival and don’t make the playoffs after he leaves.
He’s mean, nasty and great. And of any defenseman of his time, he’s the one I want in Game 7. When it comes to what it takes to win, there are only a small handful of special players like Pronger in the game’s history.
“It kind of reminds me a bit of Wayne Gretzky,” Lowe said in ’06. “Not to compare players, but just in terms of his desire to win the way Wayne was in his early days because he had all the stats by then, all the personal accomplishments, but he knew none of it really meant anything unless he won the Stanley Cup.”
In what’s supposed to be the twilight of his career, 10 years removed from his only Norris Trophy, Pronger has set himself apart. Picked second overall in the 1993 draft, he has always been a great rearguard, but it’s been in the past five years where he has solidified his legend and carved himself a comfortable place in the debate of best blueliner of his generation.
Players like Pronger don’t come along very often. So while the show plays on, and whether you like him or not, enjoy his on-and off-ice nastiness before it passes off into Hall of Fame history.
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