November 28, 2006: Return of the Villain, Act XLIV

Three years ago today, November 28, 2006, Chris Pronger made his much-anticipated return to Edmonton. Months earlier Pronger had been transformed around these parts from überhero to übervillain faster than you can say "Raleigh North Carolina". There were a number of strong parallels between Pronger's return then and last night's visit by Dany Heatley and the San Jose Sharks, including a boatload of hype, the Oilers' blowing of a two goal lead, allowing a very late tying goal, and losing in extra time. Then, as now, the Bettman point for taking the game beyond 60 minutes was scant reward indeed to a bitter defeat. Tasted like a Loss both times, for sure and talk of "moral victory" rang hollow.

Anaheim dominated Edmonton as that game wore on, with both sides showing harbingers of very different futures: the Ducks would win the Stanley Cup while the Oilers would crash and burn down the standings. Too early to call that a similarity, so let's just say that neither of those things are beyond the realm of possibility with the 2009-10 Sharks and Oilers, respectively.

Another startling similarity from a personal perspective was that both times a free ticket to the hotly-anticipated "grudge match" dropped into my lap on the afternoon of the game. Both times I wished and it came true. Not claiming cause-and-effect, but it's true. At the time I sent my take of the situation, and of the game itself, to my hockey draft buddies in separate pre-game and post-game "notes". They're still kind of interesting in the retrospective of the present. Read on after the break:

Considering Pronger

... from the point of view of the prongee(s).

You'll never guess what happened. The phone just rang with a ticket to tonight's game on it! Yabba dabba!! I'm going to the most anticipated game of the season between two of the hottest teams in the league.

Oh yeah, it's also The Chris Pronger Game. People around here have long been foaming at the mouth to boo, fuelled by a media with a long history of turning on former Oilers. Forget about the sports page, the front page of today's Journal has a huge photo of Pronger and the headline: "Fans set to break out the boos: Return to Edmonton eagerly awaited as anger over controversial trade lingers", and the editorial cartoon says "Welcome back Pronger" featuring a large Oilers logo with a noose in place of the oil drop. I was frankly sickened by that; what are we, some sort of lynch mob?

Make no mistake, I think Pronger made several errors in judgement while he was here. The decision to sign the five-year deal here and/or the subsequent events that led to the sudden departure being the first, and his handling of the situation last spring another. That said, it's not all black and white; he deserves credit for the 20% of his contract he did fulfil, and his play in the playoffs was hardly suggestive of a guy who couldn't wait to get out of Dodge. That was no Shayne Corson/Keith Tkachuk disappearing act he pulled once the real paycheques stopped flowing. While he may be a little shy of personal integrity, his professionalism cannot be questioned. And not just in the mercenary sense.

So I will probably neither cheer nor boo tonight -- or maybe both, I won't know until I'm inside the building. For sure I expect Pronger to play his usual composed game, the boos will roll off him like acid off a Duck's back, and I sincerely hope Edmonton fans can show some class and not be too silly about all this.

Lost in the noise is the fact that it will be Scott Niedermayer's 1000th NHL game tonight. With Niedermayer and Pronger Anaheim boasts the best pair of defencemen near their prime since maybe Lidstrom and Konstantinov, or Chelios and Steve Smith. Or Niedermayer-Stevens, or Pronger-MacInnis, come to think of it. All I know is that when either guy is out on the ice their team is rarely in trouble, and the other team frequently is. For sure they will be tested tonight by a speedy Oiler team that surely will bring its "A" game. Ought to be a scintillating game.

Having drafted Pronger as an 18-year old in [our "keeper league" hockey pool] and had him on my team his entire career, my own perspective on him is a little longer-term than the single year he spent here. As an Oiler fan, I found my peace a couple of weeks ago when watching an Oilers-Blues game featuring Eric Brewer on one side and Ladislav Smid and Joffrey Lupul** on the other. Forget about Pronger, that's not a bad trade at all. And I think forgetting about Pronger is about the best thing Oiler fans can do. He's gone, let's move on and support the guys who do want to play here. [Historical footnote: I turned on Lupul a little later that season. I don't think I was the only one.]


Reconsidering Pronger

... in light of Tuesday night's showdown.

I've attended quite a few of these 'homecoming' games over the years -- Gretzky of course (the only time I've seen the building full for the pre-game skate), Coffey (after a bitter holdout and trade), Moog (first game of the Stanley Cup Final, *against* Fuhr), Messier (first star performance) ... all of them interesting to a great degree. Of the ones billed as 'The Return of Chucky' I would rate the intensity and vitriol in the building for this one as somewhat lower than for either Mike (Take the Bonus Money and Run) Comrie or, especially, Jimmy Carson, whose various crimes included walking out on a contract during the season, being an American wuss, and most egregiously, not living up to the hype of being the guy who Wayne Gretzky was 'traded' for .

Sure people booed, there were lots of signs, but it just didn't feel like people really had their hearts in it. We've seen it before, all too many times. A few chants, mostly 'Pronger sucks!' or 'You sold out!' or 'Let's Go Oilers! (Pronger sucks!)' I really felt like the crowd was going through the motions to a large extent, doing 'what was expected'. I myself never made a sound, but you can bet I watched Pronger's every move.

Could hardly have had a better seat, row 23 on the players' bench side, top of the face-off circle in Anaheim's right defensive zone, Pronger's territory. Just as I expected, the big man came out and played a clinical, dispassionate game, showing no sign of jitters. First touch tipped a dangerous shot over the glass, then handled the puck four more times on that shift making a good safe play every time, then four more times the second shift, and on he went. I tried to count the number of times he handled the puck -- counting boos should be easy I figured -- but soon lost track. It was easier to count his mistakes ... in fact I counted exactly zero times when Pronger had decent possession of the puck that the next player to touch it was an Oiler in the same zone. Of course hockey is a game of flow where there is no reliable way to record solid plays -- this isn't baseball where you can quantify that the shortstop has handled 143 chances without an error -- but on this night Pronger probably handled the puck more than any other player, and was officially charged with 0 of the game's 47 giveaways. He'd gain control, take his time, find the open man and hit the breakout pass bang! bang! bang! automatic as Joe Montana connecting on six-yard outs. On the rare occasions that the Oilers pressured him hard, he would quicken his pace, fire a harder pass that was tougher to handle but in a worst case would clear the zone. In the offensive zone Pronger distributed the puck efficiently, occasionally sifting low wrist shots into traffic, which resulted in two of Roloson's better saves (a shot that got through, another that was deflected by a mountain with soft hands named Dustin Penner), and one he couldn't stop, a hard pass to Selanne's tape for an easy deflection, closing the gap to 2-1.

I can honestly say the Ducks were never in trouble when Pronger was out there, only once did Stoll get half a step on him and with a giant stride and a deft pokecheck, the puck was harmlessly in the corner. He had a quiet, efficient night, 1 takeaway, 1 blocked shot, 1 shot on goal , 1 assist, +1. No negative stats at all. It was a masterful performance by a master of the position. The combination of size, range, hands, vision, low panic point, underrated skating skills, and absolute command of the ice is every coach's dream. Time and again he reminded this Oilers fan what he brought us last year, and what we are so clearly missing now.

The Ducks as a whole were scary good. After Selanne's goal they took over the second half of the game and hemmed the Oilers in almost constantly. They won the huge majority of the battles as they seemed to have more speed, skill, stamina, and especially size: Shane O'Brien, 6'2, 228; Sean O'Donnell, 6'3, 231; Dustin Penner, 6'4, 243; George Parros, 6'5, 232; Chris Pronger, 6'6, 220. On the rare occasions they got over their own blueline, the Oilers had trouble making it to centre for the shoot-in. The Oil did have the lead, but it was one of the more blatant displays of Hang On Harvey hockey that I have seen in a while. Jason Smith was heroic with 11 blocked shots, but he couldn't block Chris Kunitz's quick backhand in the dying seconds that sent the game to OT, where it seemed inevitable that the Ducks would score again to win. Which they did, courtesy Ryan Getzlaf (6'3, 211), one of an impressive cast of young hotshots. Selanne, Scott Niedermayer and Pronger are all on their way to the Hall, while J.-S. Giguere, Andy MacDonald, Todd Marchant, Sami Paulson, Rob Niedermayer, Corey Perry, Getzlaf, Penner, Kunitz, O'Donnell et al make a strong supporting cast. This club is for real.

The good news from the Oilers' perspective centred on Ladislav Smid, one of four commodities they received in the Pronger deal (along with Joffrey Palindrome and a couple of choice draft picks). On this night the 20-year old rookie played 30:03, more than Pronger, more than Niedermayer, more than anybody. This guy is a natural, he has a great feel for the flow of play, where to find the open ice when pressured, how best to get himself out of trouble long enough to make the safe pass. He too handled the puck a ton, had just 2 of the Oilers 33 turnovers and 4 of their 11 takeaways. He's no Pronger -- he scores a point a month, not a point a game -- but I think the offence will come to some extent, and he's already one of the most composed and reliable Oilers.

The ironic thing about all of this is that when people explain the reason for their outrage at Pronger, they always cite him signing a five-year deal and bailing after one. Whereas if he'd have done what Mike Peca did, just played out the last year of his existing contract and moved on, the Oilers would have gotten absolutely nothing in return for him ... no Smid, no Lupul, no picks. And people would've been fine with that. Strange, isn't it?

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