It really wasn't all that long ago that Chris Pronger was the most important man on the Philadelphia Flyers roster.
The Flyers paid dearly to acquire Pronger. In the summer of 2009, Anaheim shipped the future Hall of Famer to the City of Brotherly Love in exchange for Joffrey Lupul, Luca Sbisa, two first-round draft picks, and a conditional selection. The Flyers also agreed to take on Ryan Dingle, an aging prospect taking up one of the Ducks' 50-man contract slots.
Despite the steep price, one would be hard-pressed to find any hand-wringers among Flyers fans that year. Pronger averaged a hair under 26 minutes per game, taking on the toughest available opposition and the number one role on both special teams, and dominated. He recorded 55 points, along with a plus-22 rating,
As impressive as that was, Pronger took things to another level in the postseason. Over a 23-game playoff run, Pronger's average time on ice jumped to 29:03. He picked up 18 points over that stretch and was easily the most important player on a team that lost in six games in the Stanley Cup Finals.
When the Flyers acquired Pronger from Anaheim, he had just a single year left on his contract. With the kind of season he had in 2009-10, it's easy to imagine the sorts of offers he might have gotten in that offseason. The Flyers, however, had forestalled any such action, signing Pronger to a seven-year deal just 10 days after his arrival from the Ducks.
Superficially, the contract was a glorious one for both parties. Pronger picked up a no-move clause as part of the deal, and in the first year of the contract earned $7.6 million in salary, as well as a $3.0 million signing bonus, for a total of $10.6 million in compensation in 2010-11. This was followed by three more seasons of pay between $7.0 and $7.6 million (along with a $1.0 million signing bonus each year). Over the last three years of the deal, something funny happened: Pronger's salary dropped precipitously, going down to $4.0 million in the deal's fifth year, and just $525,000 in each of the last two years of the pact. This allowed Pronger to rake in the dollars over the first four seasons of the contract while having an average cap hit of just under $5.0 million per season. Naturally, the league moved to investigate the contract, which might amount to circumventing the collective bargaining agreement between the players and the NHL.
There's a wrinkle to Pronger's contract, however, one that would make his retirement over the last two seasons of the deal extremely unappetizing to the Flyers. Under the collective bargaining agreement, any contract given to a player over the age of 35 counts against the salary cap regardless of whether the player actually plays. And while the Flyers signed Pronger when he was still 34, the NHL regarded the deal as an over-35 contract because it didn't come into effect until after Pronger was 35. The Flyers could buy Pronger out, of course, but it wouldn't do them any good because for over-35 contracts, the player's average cap hit stays on the books regardless. This was a significant concern when the Flyers signed Pronger, but it was hardly an immediate oneafter all Pronger's contract doesn't bottom out until 2015-16, which is a long ways off.
That concern has suddenly become much more immediate.
In mid-December, the Flyers announced that Pronger was done for the year with a concussion. The loss of a player like Pronger for a whole season is a difficult one for any team. Unfortunately for the Flyers, the talk has turned from losing him for a season to losing him for an even longer stretch of time.
As Frank Seravalli writes, Pronger could conceivably remain on the long-term injured reserve list for the remainder of his contract, if his symptoms are that bad. The Flyers have done that with Ian Laperriere, and it's not a huge deal for the team.
The problem is if Pronger doesn't want to commit to that, and at this point, there's no indication that he would. The Flyers could also conceivably enter every season for the duration of Pronger's contract unsure of whether or not he'll play entering training camp. Because they operate so close to the cap ceiling already, it will be very difficult to sign a replacement playerif it turns out Pronger can play, the Flyers are suddenly in cap trouble. On the other hand, if Pronger isn't ready to go, that's a huge piece missing on the back end for the team. The team can't pull themselves out of the situation because they signed Pronger to such a long-term, over-35 contract; he's all but untradeable.
Maybe Pronger's concussion problems go away over the summer and never return. Additionally, one could argue that the Flyers had significant bad luck to lose their captain to concussion in the first place. Regardless, the current situation the team finds themselves in is a salary cap hell, and one they deserve to be in. Signing a player over the age of 35 to a long-term contract is a terrible risk under the current CBA, and it's one that has backfired on Philadelphia.
Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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