There is no sense in pussyfooting around the severity of what the Flyers revealed Tuesday: that Kimmo Timonen - their most dependable and durable defenseman over the last decade - has developed blood clots in his right leg and in his lungs. It is severe for Timonen, and it is severe for the Flyers.
Timonen turned 39 in March, and a couple of days after the Flyers' first-round loss to the Rangers in this year's playoffs, he held court in the center of their locker room at the SkateZone in Voorhees, open in his ambivalence about whether he would return to play another season. It would be his 16th in the NHL and his eighth with the Flyers. He eventually decided he would not retire, and he re-signed for one more year.
And now? Everything has changed. Flyers general manager Ron Hextall told reporters on a conference call Tuesday that Timonen's blood clots are a "long-term situation," and it was easy to interpret that evaluation as a sign that Timonen's career may be finished. He has a history of getting blood clots - he suffered one in 2008 after a slap shot struck him in the foot - and given his age and the treatment measures he's likely to undergo, it's difficult to imagine his suiting up for the Flyers again.
Every blood-clot patient goes on blood-thinning medication, said Jay Giri, a cardiologist and an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Penn, and the patient often remains on the medication for six months or more. For an athlete in sports such as tennis or basketball, taking a blood thinner wouldn't necessarily be a big deal, Giri said, but for an athlete in a full-contact sport - football, boxing, hockey - participating while on a blood thinner would pose a far greater risk. It would be deadly.
"The head is the worst," Giri said during a phone interview about the general effects and treatment of blood clots. "A garden-variety concussion can become life-threatening - not that concussions are a good thing, but this could be way, way worse. That's actually the biggest risk for the short term.
"The problem is if there's internal bleeding. You take a big shot to the head. The brain rattles around in there, starts bleeding. There's no question that being on blood thinners and playing in a full-contact sport are two things that cause you to worry about internal hemorrhage."
Even if Timonen tried to play again six months from now, once presumably he was off the blood thinners, he wouldn't return until early February. He would have missed more than half of the regular season, and he would be closing in on his 40th birthday. The notion that he could step in then and be the player he had been as recently as last season - still logging more than 20 minutes of ice time a game, still killing penalties and manning the point on the power play, the steadiest player among the Flyers' relatively unsteady group of defensemen - would be far-fetched at best.
That's why Timonen's absence is so damaging to the Flyers. It goes beyond his value on the ice. They have several young, promising prospects on defense - Shayne Gostisbehere, Robert Hagg, Samuel Morin. But without Timonen, Hextall had to choose between two courses of action, each of which had its drawbacks.
He could have counted on one or more of those youngsters to develop at the NHL level, but he said Tuesday that he wasn't inclined to do so.
"I don't want to throw a kid into a situation he's not ready for," Hextall said. "So the way to protect yourself is add a veteran if possible."
He did that later Tuesday, signing free agent Michael Del Zotto to a one-year contract. Del Zotto is 24, and he is a strong skater with the ability to lead or join an offensive rush. But there was a reason was he was available so late in the offseason: He had just 16 points in 67 games for Nashville and the Rangers last season, and too often he seems lost in his team's defensive zone. He will be hard-pressed to provide the stability, the reassuring and calming presence with the puck, that Timonen did.
No, this isn't good in any regard for the Flyers, or for the most respected man on their roster - in stable condition, resting in a hospital in Finland. "First and foremost," Hextall said, "we're worried about Kimmo Timonen the person, not the hockey player." All that talk about retirement, about whether Kimmo Timonen could bring himself to step away from the sport forever, and it may turn out that the decision was never his to make.