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Flyers lose Pronger to postconcussion syndrome

MONTREAL - Five surgeries in the last 16 months. Countless fractures, torn knee ligaments and muscle strains over the 18 years of his Hall of Fame career.

Flyers captain Chris Pronger will miss the rest of the regular season and the playoffs. (Yong Kim/Staff file photo)
Flyers captain Chris Pronger will miss the rest of the regular season and the playoffs. (Yong Kim/Staff file photo)Read more

MONTREAL - Five surgeries in the last 16 months. Countless fractures, torn knee ligaments and muscle strains over the 18 years of his Hall of Fame career.

Chris Pronger can deal with all of those things. Headaches, nausea and perpetual fatigue are entirely different.

Pronger can have a baseball catch in his backyard with his sons, Jack and George, with a surgically repaired wrist, or ride a bike with his daughter, Lilah, with a rubber knee. He can't do any of those things if he is too woozy or too tired to get out of bed.

That's part of the reason why Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren shocked the hockey world last night by announcing that Pronger will be sidelined for the rest of the regular season and playoffs with "severe postconcussion syndrome."

"After consultation with respected concussion specialists Dr. Joseph Maroon and Dr. Micky Collins, it is the recommendation of both doctors that Chris not return to play for the Philadelphia Flyers for the remainder of the 2011-12 season or playoffs," Holmgren said in a statement. "Chris will continue to receive treatment and therapy with the hope that he can get better."

Pronger visited the specialists Wednesday in Pittsburgh.

"That's news to me. I don't think any of the guys knew," Scott Hartnell said with a grimace.

"That's devastating, to say the least. He is a presence. He is a presence in the [locker] room, a presence on the ice. When he is in the lineup, he brings a lot of intangibles that a lot of guys can't bring. We're upset about it. It's a big loss."

The exact cause of Pronger's concussion remains unclear. He has been out since Nov. 19, when he began complaining of symptoms. He took a face-first spill in a game 2 days earlier against Phoenix, and also missed six games after being hit in the right eye with a stick on Oct. 24 against Toronto.

Now, with the bread and butter of the NHL season still in front of them, the first-place Flyers will have to pick up the pieces and move on without their captain. Pronger is the third Flyers captain in about a decade, joining Eric Lindros and Keith Primeau, to be sidelined with a concussion. Primeau, of course, retired in 2006 from postconcussion symptoms that linger today.

The same question marks about Pronger's career were immediately raised last night, with many wondering whether he might have played his last game in the NHL. If Pronger does not play for the rest of the season, he will have played in only 171 of a possible 280 games - including playoffs - since joining the Flyers via trade in 2009.

Pronger, 37, is in the second season of a 7-year, $34.45 million extension he signed in 2009. He was not available for comment last night.

A team source told the Daily News that, as of last night, the Flyers have held no internal discussions as to whether Pronger will be replaced as captain or whether there will be an interim bearer of the "C."

In the short term, Pronger's absence will have little impact. They have won seven straight games, and rookies Marc-Andre Bourdon and Kevin Marshall have filled in admirably, while Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Andrej Meszaros and Matt Carle shoulder the bulk of the minutes. The Flyers are 12-4-1 without Pronger this season.

In the 13 games he did play this season, Pronger was on pace to approach career-high offensive numbers with one goal and 12 assists.

In the long term, the Flyers will suffer without Pronger, particularly as the stakes get higher and the games get tougher to win in February, March and April. After practice on Wednesday at the Bell Centre, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette was asked whether he believed his team has adjusted to playing without their captain.

"I'm not so sure I would agree with that," Laviolette replied.

He pointed to last season, when Pronger missed 17 of the team's final 21 games. The Flyers went only 7-8-6 over those last 21 contests. After leading the Eastern Conference for 56 straight days, they stumbled into the playoffs as the No. 2 seed and were bounced in four straight games in the second round.

Saying the Flyers are accustomed to not seeing Pronger is a fair statement. But it's an entirely different thing to say that the return on a replacement player for one of the Top 100 players in the steeped history of the NHL will be adequate.

With Pronger already on the long-term injury list, the Flyers have the cushion to replace his $4.91 million salary-cap hit. But that doesn't mean they will jump to make a move anytime soon - as it could take until the trade deadline for an obvious move to pan out.

For one, the Flyers have been winning. They have experienced defenseman Matt Walker sitting as a healthy scratch, and Andreas Lilja will likely return to the lineup when he is first eligible next Wednesday.

Secondly, they have already perused the trade market and found little of value. As Holmgren put it, worthwhile defensemen "don't exactly grow on trees." The market for rental players - or soon-to-be unrestricted free agents - does not blossom until buyers and sellers are sorted out near the Feb. 27 trade deadline.

For now, the Flyers likely will stand pat. The NHL's annual, 8-day holiday roster freeze will kick in on Monday and last until midnight Dec. 27.

Pronger is a competitor. But with his three children and wife, Lauren, huddled together at Christmas time, he likely will ask himself: What's the point of pulling in more than $100 million throughout the course of your storied career if you won't be able to enjoy it after you retire?