Pronger still about 3 weeks away from serious training

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Chris Pronger spoke to TSN Radio on Wednesday and revealed that he’s still about three weeks away from cranking up his off-season workouts. The 37-year-old had three surgeries last season, missed the beginning of the season, the end of the season, time in the playoffs, and may miss the beginning of training camp in September. He only scored 4 goals and 21 points in 50 games last season. Statistically, it was the worst season Pronger has experienced since he was breaking in with the Hartford Whalers in the mid-1990s.

The good news for fans is that Pronger had played all 82 games in both of the two preceding seasons. Regardless, when a physical defenseman gets into his late 30’s and starts having injury problems, people are going to start asking questions. Was the 2010-11 season an aberration or a sign of things to come?

Here’s a sampling of what Pronger said to the guys at TSN:

“I’m still probably three, three and a half weeks away from being able to train hard. I’m still walking on the treadmill, light bike riding. The back doctor wanted 12 weeks for me not doing a whole lot to allow that back area to scar up and then fully heal up before I start torquing and pushing on it hard,” said Pronger, who needed to remove a herniated disc that caused him back and leg problems.

(snip)

“You want to win, you want to get back to the top and hold the Stanley Cup and go through that year of blood, sweat and tears with your teammates, and accomplishing something that very few people have an opportunity to do. Hopefully the rest of the summer goes well, and I continue to get healthy and things go in the right direction for me there,” he said. “We got off to a good start after a long grind of the playoffs from the previous year. Whether we hit a wall or whatever halfway through the year after Christmas, we just didn’t seem to get any better. We didn’t continue to push ourselves for whatever reason. It was almost like our development got stunted and we almost got worse.”

It’s no secret that the Flyers need a healthy Chris Pronger if they want to achieve the goals they set each season. This isn’t a team that is looking to make the playoffs or win a series—this is a team that wants to get back to the Stanley Cup Final and finish what they started the spring of 2010. Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle, and Andrej Meszaros are all nice pieces, but without Chris Pronger anchoring the defense for 28 minutes per game in the playoffs, there’s an enormous void on the blueline that changes the entire complexion of the team. It doesn’t matter if they have a new star goaltender or not—they’ll still need to have Pronger shutting down opponents like he’s been doing for almost two decades.

The hint of panic around the Flyers is the fear that Pronger will never be the same player that he was when he was first acquired from the Ducks. His salary cap hit is almost $5 million and since he signed the contract after he turned 35, the contract will remain on the books whether he continues to play or retires before his contract ends in 2017. Sure, GM Paul Holmgren has proven he can magically make almost any salary work, but things could be a little different if they’re paying $5 million over multiple years for a player who has retired.

Of course, no one is saying Pronger is going to retire due to his current back injury. But with his body starting to break down and six more years left on his contract, will he really finish out the contract? One day down the road, we may see the ugly side of some of these long-term contract rear its ugly head for Philadelphia. That is, unless Pronger chooses to play as his body breaks down when the Flyers are only paying him the league minimum.

So, what should Blackhawks do without Corey Crawford?

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Look, it’s quite possible that Corey Crawford will be back this season for the Chicago Blackhawks.

As of this moment, there are more questions than answers, with semantic arguments bubbling up about whether he’s dealing with concussion issues, vertigo, or what. Either way, it’s an unfortunate situation.

Let’s say the very bad happens and the Blackhawks won’t get their crucial goalie back as they try to claw their way into a playoff spot in the competitive Central Division. What should GM Stan Bowman do?

Here are a few scenarios.

Stay put

We can debate where Crawford ranks among the NHL’s best goalies (is he a top-five guy, top 10, elite?), but it’s fair to say that he’s had one of the toughest gigs. It’s a good thing that he produced a fantastic .929 save percentage this season, because Chicago’s defense isn’t what it once was. They’re tied for the eight-most shots allowed per game (32.6) and are in the top 10 in most high-danger chances allowed (via Natural Stat Trick).

Jeff Glass is a great story, and he’s provided very acceptable backup-level work alongside Anton Forsberg (Glass’s save percentage is .910, Forsberg’s at .911).

That’s heartening, but the bottom line is that the Blackhawks rank at the bottom of the Central with this mix of Crawford’s great goaltending and respectable work from Glass/Forsberg. They may only sink with Glass and Forsberg, and that’s assuming that those two don’t fall apart altogether.

The more uncomfortable question is: maybe they should just “Take the L” and regroup for next season? As is, it’s tough to imagine the Blackhawks making the playoffs, or making any noise if they do make it.

If they would rather not punt this season, then a trade would be the best option to explore.

Go after an obvious guy

The Detroit Red Wings want to move Petr Mrazek. If Crawford goes on IR, Chicago might not even need Detroit to retain much/any of Mrazek’s $4M, possibly making the asking price more reasonable.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen the best of Mrazek (2015-16), but he’s only made 13 appearances in 2017-18, as the Red Wings still haven’t gotten the whole “rebuild” memo yet. Or at least they haven’t read it.

Mrazek would stand as a “high-risk, high-reward” acquisition. You could probably put Buffalo Sabres starter Robin Lehner under that heading, assuming Buffalo would let him go. Logically, you’d think Lehner would be more costly, considering his sneaky-strong individual stats.

TSN’s Frank Seravalli notes that San Jose Sharks backup Aaron Dell might draw some trade interest, with some looking at him as the next backup who might take the next step to become a starter. Chicago could provide Dell with quite the audition in that regard.

The road less traveled

Actually, Dell stands as a template for the type of guys who the Blackhawks might want to at least inquire about: backups who might not be long for their current teams.

Philipp Grubauer is one name that stands out. With a solid .916 save percentage this season and a sparkling .922 mark for his career (81 regular-season games), Grubauer’s excelled when given chances. The problem is that he plays on the same team as Braden Holtby, which means that those chances seldom come.

Grubauer is a pending RFA, and he’s likely to be too expensive for the Washington Capitals after this season. Maybe the Blackhawks can make it worth Washington’s while to acknowledge that likelihood, and get something for him rather than letting him go for less later?

The Blue Jackets still have Joonas Korpisalo through 2018-19, with his contract expiring at the same time as that of Sergei Bobrovsky, so a conversation about “Korpi” likely wouldn’t last too long. Still, why not ask?

One other off-the-beaten path consideration would be Antti Raanta.

The Blackhawks and Coyotes aren’t shy about making moves together, and Raanta’s debut season hasn’t gone as planned in Arizona. The Coyotes might not have necessarily soured on Raanta, but if they decide to go in a different direction in net in the future, maybe it would be worth moving him?

Chicago obviously has experience with Raanta, so that could make it a more comfortable transition as a “rental,” too.

***

Look, the Blackhawks struggled with Crawford in the lineup, playing at an outstanding level. There’s no guarantee that landing a goalie would make the difference, even if that netminder generated great work and didn’t cost a ton in a trade.

On the other hand, this Blackhawks core isn’t getting any younger, while the Central is loaded with teams that have bright futures.

For all we know, this might be one of this team’s last, best shots. GM Stan Bowman needs to turn over every stone to try to find an answer, whether that ends up coming down to making a big move or accepting the painful status quo.

Personally, I’d rotate between grumbling and crying.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Wednesday Night Rivalry – Canadiens at Bruins

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PROJECTED LINES

Montreal Canadiens

Max PaciorettyPaul ByronCharles Hudon

Artturi LehkonenTomas PlekanecBrendan Gallagher

Alex GalchenyukJacob De La RoseJonathan Drouin

Nicolas DeslauriersByron FroeseDaniel Carr

Karl AlznerJeff Petry

Jordie BennJakub Jerabek

Victor Mete — David Schlemko

Starting goalie: Carey Price

[NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Canadiens vs. Bruins; Penguins vs. Ducks]

Boston Bruins

Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak

Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciRyan Spooner

Danton HeinenRiley NashDavid Backes

Tim SchallerSean KuralyNoel Acciari

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy

Torey KrugBrandon Carlo

Matt GrzelcykAdam McQuaid

Starting goalie: Tuukka Rask

Bruins anthem singer Rene Rancourt and his fist pumps to retire after this season

Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images
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For over 40 years, the Boston Bruins have featured Rene Rancourt as their anthem singer. On Wednesday, the team announced that the colorful crooner will be hanging up his microphone after this season.

The 78-year-old Rancourt, a trained opera singer, actually began his anthem singing career performing before Boston Red Sox games. He was brought on board by the Bruins after a performance prior to Game 6 of the 1975 World Series — The Carlton Fisk Homerun Game — when he subbed in for Kate Smith.

“I knew practically nothing about hockey,” Rancourt told Joshua Kloke of Vice Sports in 2016. “I didn’t even know where the Boston Garden was.”

Quite the character, Rancourt quickly became a staple before games and over time became known for his fist pumps, which energize crowds nightly, and his salute. The fist pumps were inspired by former Bruin Randy Burridge’s “stump pump” celebration after goals.

If you were lucky, the wedding or other event you were attending would be interrupted by Rancourt’s appearance to belt out a couple of tunes. It was also an annual tradition to see him sing Christmas carols during Bruins games every December.

Rancourt will be honored during the Bruins’ final regular season game on April 8. It will be interesting to see how many fist pumps his pulls off during his last appearance at TD Garden, whenever that may happen this spring.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Six NHL rookies that are flying under the radar this season

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The NHL’s rookie class for the 2017-18 season is an impressive one with what is sure to be a tightly contested Calder Trophy race at the top.

Forwards Mathew Barzal (New York Islanders), Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks), and Clayton Keller (Arizona Coyotes), as well as defensemen Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins) and Mikhail Sergachev (Tampa Bay Lightning) are all making tremendous impacts for their teams this season and are clearly the cream of the crop when it comes to first-year players around the league.

One of them (most likely Barzal or Boeser) is going to take home the Calder Trophy this season.

But they are not the only rookies that are standing out this season.

Let’s take a look at five more whose performances have slid under the radar. None of these players will end up winning the rookie of the year award this season, but they have been key contributors to their teams so far and deserve some credit for it.

Danton Heinen, Boston Bruins

The Bruins are a really intriguing team in the East. They have three of the best forwards in the league at the top of their lineup, a goalie that is capable of carrying the team when he gets hot, and they have rebuilt their defense over the past couple of years. They are also getting a ton of contributions from rookies. McAvoy has already blossomed into a top-pairing defenseman, and Jake DeBrusk, a 2015 first-round pick, is currently on a 20-goal pace.

They also have Heinen, a 22-year-old forward that is getting his first full-time look in the NHL.

Currently he is fourth among all NHL rookies in scoring with 38 points, while his 0.82 point per game average is third behind only Barzal and Boeser.

He has been especially good on a line with veteran forward David Backes. When Backes and Heinen are on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the Bruins are controlling 60 percent of the shot attempts and outscoring teams by a 14-10 margin (via NaturalStatTrick).

Alexander Kerfoot, Colorado Avalanche

After choosing to not sign with the team that drafted him, the New Jersey Devils, Kerfoot became an unrestricted free agent this past summer and ended up landing an opportunity with the Colorado Avalanche. It has paid off immediately for everyone.

The Avalanche are in surprising contention for a playoff spot this season, even after trading Matt Duchene, thanks in large part to the breakout year from Nathan MacKinnon.

Another key contributor this season has been the 23-year-old Kerfoot.

In his debut season he’s already recorded 30 points in 40 games and has been one of the team’s top point producers.

The Avalanche have been a disaster on the ice in recent seasons, but they are exceeding expectations this season and their top-four scorers (MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and Kerfoot) are all age 25 or younger. Landeskog is the only one of that quartet that is over the age 23. And they also still have 19-year-old Tyson Jost.

There is still a pretty good young core here to build around.

Yanni Gourde, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning are looking absolutely terrifying this season — and for future seasons given their contract situations — with a bunch of superstars at the top of the lineup and a bunch of young, talented, cheap players sprinkled around them. We mentioned Sergachev up above as one of the Calder Trophy leaders, and they also have second-year forward Brayden Point lighting up the scoreboard (Point, by the way, is the third-leading scorer on the team).

Then there’s Yanni Gourde.

Gourde barely makes the rookie cut this season because he turned 26 in December and had played in 20 games a season ago, but by NHL rules he does still qualify as a rookie.

The Lightning have excelled in recent seasons by building around talented, undersized forwards that are capable of putting the puck in the net and Gourde is just the latest example. Listed at only 5-9, 172 pounds, Gourde is one of the smallest players in the league. Before getting his first real shot in the NHL he had been a productive player at pretty much every level of hockey that he played at.

He earned a regular spot with the Lightning this season and has proven to be a valuable addition. Along with his offensive production (14 goals, 16 assists in 44 games) he has also been a key contributor to their penalty kill.

Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins weren’t expecting to need Jarry this season, but when the Antti Niemi experiment proved to be a failure their plans had to change a little. So far, he has been excellent as Matt Murray‘s backup and has filled in admirably for him while Murray has been away from the team dealing with a personal family matter. With Murray again away from the team following his father’s passing this week Jarry is going to get even more opportunities to play in the immediate future.

So far this season Jarry is 9-3-2 in his 15 appearances and has a .923 save percentage that is tops among rookie goaltenders (minimum 15 games played).

Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets

The Jets have become one of the NHL’s most dynamic offenses with Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, and Nikolaj Ehlers are all shining at the top of the lineup.

They also have 2015 first-round pick Kyle Connor starting to make an impact.

Connor is currently third among all rookie forwards in goals scored, but is second only to Boeser when it comes to goals per game.

He is currently on what would be a 30-goal pace over 82 games.

The Jets’ rebuild has been slow — painfully slow, and probably slower than it needed to be — but their patience and desire to build almost entirely from within is finally starting to be rewarded with this group of forwards.

If they can keep getting solid goaltending they are going to be a tough team to knock out of the playoffs.

Jesper Bratt, New Jersey Devils

The Devils are another team that is getting significant contributions from rookies this season.

Currently the Devils are in a playoff position in the Metropolitan Division and are looking to return to the postseason for the first time since 2011-12. Leading the way is a trio of rookies that are all among the team’s top-four scorers. Included in that group are No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier and free agent signing Will Butcher.

It should not be much of a surprise that Hischier has played well and made an immediate impact. That is what you hope — and expect — from a No. 1 overall pick. Butcher has been outstanding and is currently the team’s top possession player.

The biggest surprise out of the group, though, might be 19-year-old Jesper Bratt, a sixth-round pick by the Devils in 2016.

Through the Devils’ first 42 games, Bratt is second on the team in scoring, is seventh among all rookies, and is playing close to two minutes on the penalty kill per night … as a 19-year-old rookie.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.