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Making the Case: Chris Pronger

April 1, 2015, 10:34 PM ET [16 Comments]
Adam Kirshenblatt
Hockey Hall of Fame • RSSArchiveCONTACT
“Candidates for election as Honoured Members in the player category shall be chosen on the basis of their playing ability, sportsmanship, character and their contribution to their team or teams and to the game of hockey in general”

Staying with the theme of defensemen from my last “Making the Case”, Chris Pronger’s case for the Hockey Hall of Fame’s Class of 2015 is quite compelling. As one of the most fear players of his generation, Pronger used his size, strength, and physicality to push good teams into contending teams. This was seen throughout all of his years in Hartford, St. Louis, Edmonton, Anaheim and Philadelphia as many of those teams were considered Stanley Cup contenders during his time in each city. Even in his only year in Edmonton, he helped take the Oilers, who finished 8th in the West, all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. If there’s one thing this man knew how to do, it is win.

Christopher Robert Pronger was drafted 2nd overall by the Hartford Whalers in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft, just behind the cautionary tale of Alexander Daigle. After the selection Daigle made the infamous statement, “I’m glad I got drafted first, because no one remembers number two” (oops). Pronger’s early years in Hartford were a troublesome time for both the team and Pronger’s young career. The team and the fan base created a lot of hype surrounding the young defenseman. Unfortunately, when developing young defensemen it sometimes can take a while. Despite the fact that Pronger steadily improved in his rookie year, when he was named the Whalers’ best defenseman and gained a spot on the All-Rookie Team, the team continued to struggle and lose money. After the Whalers missed the playoffs for two consecutive years, the team decided to trade Pronger to the St. Louis Blues for Brendan Shanahan.

St. Louis would be the destination where Pronger would have his greatest individual successes. The team itself wasn’t so bad as they were in the middle of their 25 year playoff streak, the longest in NHL history. During this period of time, the class in the Western Conference was considered to be the “Big Four” which were the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, and the St. Louis Blues. This is because between 1996 and 2002 two of these four teams would be the competitors amongst each other to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final.

Pronger lifts the Stanley Cup after beating the Ottawa Senators in 5 Games in 2007

With the Blues, Pronger would develop into the feared defenseman known today as the team had the patience to let him develop while surrounding him with other Hall of Fame type players like Brett Hull, Al MacInnis, and even the great Wayne Gretzky. After Brett Hull left the team as a free agent to sign in Dallas, Pronger was named as team captain. It was in the 1999-00 season where Pronger would reach his apex in regards to individual awards. With his career high 62 points (14 G, 48 A), and a +/- rating of 52, Pronger would win both the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman as well as the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. The Hart trophy win at the time was the closest win in NHL history, beating Jaromir Jagr by one point in the voting (two years later Jose Theodore and Jarome Iginla would tie in voting with Theodore winning due to more first place votes). Winning both trophies put Pronger in some exclusive company as no other defenseman has won both the Norris and Hart Trophy in the same year since Bobby Orr and no defenseman has won the Hart Trophy since.

Due to the team’s lofty expectations, team success waned during Pronger’s time in St. Louis. The Blues would only make it to the Western Conference Finals once in 2001, where they would lose in 5 games to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion, Colorado Avalanche. They would get into the 2nd round (1996, 1998, 1999, and 2002, and they would fail to advance from the 1st round in 1997, 2000, 2003, and 2004. Despite all of this success, the ownership of the Blues were in flux around the 2005 Lockout. Unfortunately for Pronger, that would also be around the time he would enter his last round of restricted free agency. Since the current owners didn’t want to add salary to the team to make it easier to sell, the Blues opted to trade Pronger to the Edmonton Oilers after the lockout for Eric Brewer, Jeff Woywitka, and Doug Lynch.

Despite signing a 5 year contract upon his arrival in Edmonton, Pronger would only last one year in the “City of Champions”. The expectations for Edmonton were that since the Lockout put the small market teams on an even playing field, they could compete to win the Stanley Cup. However, that idea seemed farfetched during the 2005-06 regular season as the team fought tooth and nail to claim the 8th seed in the Western Conference. It wasn’t until trade deadline acquisition Dwayne Roloson found his rhythm in goal for the Oilers did their expectations become a reality.

With Roloson playing out of his mind and under the skill and strength of Pronger, the Oilers became the first 8th seed to ever make it to the Stanley Cup Final. Sadly for the Oilers, Roloson would get hurt in game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final leaving Jussi Markkanen to take his spot. Edmonton would force the Carolina Hurricanes to seven games before falling in that last game. Pronger would lead the team in points during that playoff run with 5 goals and 16 assists and also became the first player in NHL history to score on a penalty shot during a Stanley Cup Final game.

After the playoffs, it came out that Pronger had requested a trade from Edmonton. There have been a ton of rumours about what really happened there, but no one really knows so there is no real use speculating. That summer the Oilers obliged and traded Pronger to the Anaheim Ducks for Joffery Lupul, Ladislav Smid, Anaheim’s 1st round pick in 2007 (later traded to Phoenix who selected Nick Ross 30th overall), a conditional 1st round pick if Anaheim reached the Stanley Cup Final within 3 years (which they did, the pick became Jordan Eberle drafted 22nd overall in 2008), and a 2nd round pick in 2008 (later traded to the New York Islanders and became Travis Hamonic 53rd overall). In Anaheim, Pronger was the last piece of the puzzle for the Ducks to be added by GM Brian Burke who had originally drafted Prongr when he was GM of the Whalers. During the 2006-07 season Pronger would have his best year since his MVP season when he would get 59 points (13 G, 46 A) in 66 games. In the 2007 playoffs, the Ducks would dispatch the Minnesota Wild in the 1st round in 5 games, cast away the Vancouver Canucks in the 2nd round in 5 games, surpassed the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Finals in 6 games, while pushing aside the Ottawa Senators in the Finals in 5 games to win the Stanley Cup.

Skating in his 3rd Stanley Cup Final in 2010 for the Flyers against the Chicago Blackhawks

After winning the Cup in 2007, Scott Niedermayer was unsure if he wanted to retire or return to the Ducks. Until he decided, the Ducks named Pronger as team captain and despite the fact that Niedermayer would return later that season, Pronger retained the captaincy until the next season. However the Duck’s window for winning was beginning to close for this current core of the team. The Ducks would finish 4th in the West and faced the 5th seeded Dallas Stars. The Ducks were favoured in this series but the Stars had other plans. The Star would win the first 3 of 4 games of the series and eventually ousted the defending Stanley Cup Champs in 6 games in the 1st round. In the 2009 season, the Ducks had to sneak into the playoffs by clinging onto the 8th seed. However they would surprise the President Trophy winning San Jose Sharks and beat them in 6 games in the 1st round of the playoffs. They went onto giving the defending Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings as much as they could handle, but losing to them in 7 games in the 2nd round.

After the season the writing was on the wall that the Ducks needed to retool in order to maintain their power in the west. With that the Ducks traded Pronger and Ryan Dingle to the Philadelphia Flyers for Joffery Lupul (again), Luca Sbisa, 2009 1st round pick (traded to Columbus and became John Moore 21st overall), 2010 1st round pick (Emerson Etem 29th overall), and a conditional 3rd round pick for which the conditions were never met. The Flyers had been a perennial playoff team for a number of years and were hoping Pronger would have the same effect on them as he did with the Ducks, where they signed him to a 7 year contract extension at the age of 35.

In 2010, the opposite almost happened. Going into the last game of the regular season, the Flyers and Rangers were tied for the 8th and final playoff spot in the East and as fate would have it played each other in that 82nd game. The game went to a shootout in which the Flyers prevailed to take the 7th seed while the Rangers were out. In the first round the Flyers upset the Atlantic Division winner New Jersey Devils in 5 games. In the 2nd round the Bruins took a commanding 3-0 lead over the Flyers, however for just the 3rd time in NHL history, the Flyers came all the way back to win in Game 7 despite also trailing 3-0 in that contest in Boston. The pressure was off for the Flyers who would beat the Cinderella Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Finals to go up against the Chicago Blackhawks. At the time, Chicago had not won a Stanley Cup since 1961 and Philadelphia hadn’t won since 1975, so both teams were eager to end the drought. However, it would be Patrick Kane scoring in overtime of Game 6 to give Chicago the Stanley Cup.

This was the beginning of the end for Pronger’s NHL career. The next year injuries would let him only play 50 games in that season. Due to the performance of the Flyers in that 2011 season, the team made changes to their leadership core trading away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. They felt that Chris Pronger was born to be a Flyer and deserved to be captain. The problem was during the first month of his captaincy, Pronger was hit by an errant stick from Mikhail Grabovski of the Toronto Maple Leafs, leaving him with a concussion that would end his season, and his career, after 13 games.

Pronger’s NHL career was a bit of a roller coaster but his success isn’t limited there. He also appeared in the first four Winter Olympics that NHLers would be allowed to play in (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010), where he would eventually become the player who would play the most games for Team Canada at the Olympics. Of those four Olympic Games, he would help Canada win gold twice in 2002 and 2010. As well, he would help Canada win Gold at the 1997 World Championships which means Pronger is a part of the Triple Gold Club.

Chris Pronger in one of his 25 games in a Team Canada uniform in the Winter Olympics

The end of Pronger’s career has impacted the way the NHL and the Hockey Hall of Fame does their business. The fact that Pronger signed his contract after he turned 35 means his cap hit will still count against the Flyers even if he retires. This means he is not able to officially retire until the duration of his contract is completed in order to allow the Flyers to put him on the long term injury list. The NHL has since treated him as a retired player by giving him a job within their Players Safety Division but not allowing him to work on situations that involve the Flyers. As well the Hockey Hall of Fame changed their policy from stating that a player had to be retired for 3 years before they are eligible to be inducted to saying that a player had to have not played a competitive game for 3 years. This makes it so the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the Salary Cap doesn’t have any effect on the Hockey Hall of Fame. If you remove the politics that surround that aspect, all of Pronger’s accolades are equal to or greater than those who are already in, thus these decisions seem to be right on.

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HHOF Making the Case:
Steve Larmer
Reggie Leach
Alexander Mogilny
Pat Quinn
Kerry Fraser
Paul Henderson
Chris Osgood
Marguerite Norris
Eric Lindros
Curtis Joseph
Theo Fleury
Carl Brewer
Don Cherry
March Recchi
Nicklas Lidstrom

Honoured Members:
Mike Modano
Pat Burns
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