Big money, big impact

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 10:12 AM ET

PHOENIX -- He's worth every penny.

There was some debate about that early in Chris Pronger's tenure with the Edmonton Oilers after GM Kevin Lowe signed him to a five-year contract worth $31.25 million.

With the 31-year-old beanpole trying to re-groove his game after a year out during the NHL lockout, there were times when his big ticket looked pricey, indeed.

Sure, the former Norris Trophy and Hart Trophy winner made a sweet outlet pass, seldom got rattled and played big minutes, but Pronger didn't grab you by the, ahem, scruff of the neck to the point where you said, "Wow, this guy is something special."

Well, Pronger has grabbed the Oilers by the collars lately and dragged them to three straight wins on this road trip.

THE WINNING GOAL

He scored the winning goal in a 6-3 victory in Anaheim, then added a dramatic last-second goal to set the table for a 4-3 shootout win over the Phoenix Coyotes Sunday on a night he played more than 32 minutes.

Even those slow of wit are starting to understand what Lowe and coach Craig MacTavish have been saying all along. It took 52 games, but we get it.

Wow, this guy is something special.

"When you miss a year, it takes awhile to get back to speed. That's probably part of it," MacTavish said.

"He's more familiar with his teammates, the chemistry on the team and where everybody is.

"Everybody is in predictable positions for him, which is important for a player who thinks at that level."

While it's true Pronger felt his way into the season, we were guilty of just looking at the numbers and deeming his play OK but nothing special. With 1-9-10 his first 20 games, that was easy to do.

"Early on, the points weren't coming, but I think I was playing pretty well," said Pronger. "I was making the right plays and reading plays the way I wanted to and trying to adapt to the new rules.

A BIT OF TIME

"Things like that, after a year lay-off, take a little bit of time to come back. Now, I just try to play as consistent as possible. Everybody knows what I'm going to try to do every night."

There's been nothing just OK about his last 20 games, a stretch in which he has scored 5-13-18 and fine- tuned the facets of his game that don't immediately jump out at you.

Pronger doesn't often deliver highlight-reel hits. He doesn't roar up ice leading the rush and pull you from your seat. He's more subtle.

"The success of teams comes from your ability to break the puck out of your own end," MacTavish said. "There's nobody in the league better at it than he is in terms of withstanding the pressure and making that good first movement of the puck.

"He gives players the puck at the right time and in the right position, where they're going to have time and space."

Pronger's numbers, 7-27-34, have him on pace to take a run at his 54 points of 2003-04, in part because he's switched to one of those new jazzed-up Warrior sticks.

But the numbers don't tell the story. He's made the power play better. He's made this team infinitely more sound in its own end with his calm cool and more potent on the attack.

"I'm not really too interested in that any- more," Pronger said of his own statistics.

"I've done all that in my career. It's just a matter of going out and winning games and doing the best I can for this team.

"Everybody needs to chip in a different way. Some guys are going to score goals. Some guys are going to make big hits, big defensive plays.

"Everybody has to add a little to every game."

Right now, Pronger, who never missed the playoffs in nine seasons with the St. Louis Blues, is delivering all the above.

PICK UP THE SLACK

"That's what I get paid for," Pronger smiles.

"I've got to pick up the slack sometimes and do a little bit extra, but it's really just trying to be as consistent as possible.

"Guys can come and go and have great games and fall off.

"The mark of a true competitor and an all-star in this league is being as consistent as possible and putting your best game forward each and every night." Worth every penny.


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