Sports Illustrated has released the results of its Dirtiest Player in The NHL poll. The 'honor' polls fellow NHL players (324 respondents this year), who (by a 13% of the vote tie) declared Ducks' defensemen Chris Pronger and Dallas forward Steve Ott as the hands-down dirtiest (in a season where Sean Avery did not play a full season).
Daniel, many Ducks fans are critical of Prongs, and few would deny that he would push Lady Byng down a flight of stairs, given the opportunity. In fact, many have yet to forgive him for his hits on Selanne, who gladly paid the defenseman back with a brutal board into the glass in the Olympics. And yet, Ryan Whitney (Pronger's heir apparent) has proven that a large body and a big shot can't replace Pronger's defensive hockey sense and work in front of the net. Clearly, he's done something for the Ducks on the defensive side of the puck that a softer defenseman can't accomplish.
It may be early to ask this, but as many speculate he's on his way out this offseason, what's your final word on Pronger? Was he good for the Ducks? Are you embarrassed he ever wore a Duck uniform? Will you be sad to see him go?
I'm a little torn on the Pronger issue. Although I'm reminded of something Mike Myers' character said in the film Mystery, Alaska - "If you don't play this game with a big heart and a big bag of knuckles in front of the net, you don't got dinky-doo." Say what you want about Pronger, the man is king of the crease. Look no further than Game 1, when Whitney got owned by Holmstrom while Pronger did a great job keeping him at bay. In fact, Pronger has only two penalties in the Detroit series, one of which came at the 20:00 mark of the third period of Game 3. Whether or not that means he's just getting away with more is debatable. Pronger is a nasty guy, and before he came to Anaheim, I hated him. But it's hard to hate a guy who works hard and is a really solid professional. He doesn't have that Brett Favre Syndrome, where he thinks it's his job to play D and not teach anyone anything. No matter what happens, Pronger seems to be the player that fans love to have and hate to have play against them.
To more immediately answer your question, I'm not ashamed he was on our team. In fact I'm proud of the work he's done. More importantly, I'm proud of how he's recovered from Anaheim fans throwing him under the bus. We both talked about how shipping him to Boston for Kessel would have been a great deal. In the middle of the season he wasn't nearly as dominant as he was after the trade deadline. If Pronger had continued to play that way, then moving him would have been brilliant. Now that he's recovered and playing like a Norris trophy winner, having him on the team is invaluable. As I've said before, the guy is the king of the crease. I don't know if anyone plays like he does in front of the net, and let's face it, you have to be a little dirty if you're going to own that ice. Even Lidstrom isn't immune.
I think Pronger has been great for this team. I don't think we win the Cup without him, and we certainly aren't in the middle of this playoff run without him. I will be sad to see him go, and that's probably why I'll never be a good GM. I'm too sentimental. I'd love it if the brothers Niedermayer and Pronger could both end their careers in Anaheim. I feel like keeping that first Cup team together and letting it end that way for all of them would be wonderful. It was such a special moment. The first time the Cup came to California, it was a huge vindication for all of us. Look at how crazy San Jose went to get the Cup experience after that. The Kings kept the course, but it put even more life into the rivalry. Anaheim winning the Cup was great for all Hockey in California, and Pronger was a huge part of that. I'm not ashamed he plays for us, and I hope he stays at this level so he can end his career here. He's a personality, but he's not detrimental to the team. People may hate playing against him, and he punishes guys for coming to the net, but he helps every team he's ever played for. What else can you ask of a guy?
I'd like to see a poll that asks the GM's who they thought they needed to acquire at the Trade Deadline to help them win a Cup. Pronger wins that in a landslide.
There's definitely a solid defense to be mounted for Chris Pronger, but it's hard for me to do it. He doesn't have an endearing personality. And you CAN play defense that mean and still be endearing (see: Bobby Orr flying over the boards to pummel Wayne Maki after he sticked "Terrible Ted" Green in the head). I just don't feel that Pronger is a "personality." He was on Rome is Burning on Monday, and it was maybe the worst television I've ever seen.
I will say this. As someone who grew up watching Ronnie Lott, in a town that still remembered Jack Tatum, a REAL defender has to play with that edge. These flashy offensive players come into your zone, and literally TAKE from you. They occupy the space that you are charged to patrol. They blow past you when you are asked to halt their advance. And when they score, you're the fool who let them. It's like they're taking the points right out of your pocket. "You have to own the middle," Ronnie used to say, "They have to be afraid to come into your zone." And they were. Receivers got alligator arms. They heard footsteps. And the deaf or unusually brave . . . well, they didn't get to play football for very long.
When Pronger plays that way, he owns the ice. He tried to soften his play (as did the entire team) to take fewer penalties in the middle of this season. And it was just awful. It looked like Big Mama had put away the wooden spoon out there. Kids were running around like Christmas Morning. I think he learned from that experience, though. He's taking fewer truly stupid penalties. But he's got his edge back. He's taking it personally, again. And he will crosscheck Jonathan Cheechoo to the ice after the play is over to prove his point.
Is there another way to do it? Sure. Niedermayer owns the puck, instead of the ice, and is arguably more effective. He's still inside the head of the opposing forwards because they assume he'll always be in position. And the NHL seems to be moving in that direction: small strong skating defensemen chasing small strong skating forwards around the ice. The visibility of these polls declaring the league's dirtiest player (once the annual Claude Lemieux award) only helps move that transition along.
But I'll be sad when the game becomes that. First, because it is completely at odds with how the Ducks play. In a way, the Ducks are trapped in a timewarp of pre-90s North American hockey. And "Ducks Hockey" is something the league seems intent on eradicating. Through rule changes and penalties, the NHL is slowly forcing out the existence of-- and the mere idea of --enforcers, intimidators and physical play. And maybe I sound like a Neanderthal complaining about the "No Hit League," but I don't want to see a bunch of guys out there who are okay with it when they get beat on a play. I don't want to see 82 All-star games. I want every player on the team to take it personally. I want every player pushing and challenging a guy after the play. I want emotions to run high and stay high. And I don't ever want to see a forward comfortable in our zone. I want to own the middle.
I think Chris Pronger is a Duck, born to play Ducks Hockey: a first class defender and competitor, who straddles the line of what's acceptable in the physical side of the game. And whether they fear or respect him, players are aware he's on the ice. He's our wooden spoon out there. I will be sad to see ALL of the Chris Prongers of the world go.