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Old 12-16-2007, 12:08 PM   #198
Bronx33
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Default Holmgren's toughest challenge

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When Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren signed 22-year-old center Mike Richards to the richest ($69 million) and longest (12 years) contract in team history, he took several calculated gambles.

He gambled that Richards, who missed 23 games last season with a sports hernia and a separated shoulder, would remain healthy throughout the rest of his Flyers career.

He gambled that Richards, whose career high in points before this season was 34, would continue to develop as a point producer and eventual captain.

And he gambled that the NHL salary cap, which has climbed from $39 million to $44 million to $50.3 million since the end of the NHL lockout, would continue to escalate, allowing him to keep the young nucleus he has established through strong drafts and excellent trades.

Assuming there are no significant roster changes, the Flyers have committed roughly $44 million to next year's payroll. That figure excludes the $3.5 million the Flyers will pay Mike Rathje while he is on injured reserve and the $2.1 million they have committed to Denis Gauthier, who is likely to accept a buyout after this season.

All indications point to the NHL salary cap rising to about $55 million next season.

Theoretically, that would leave the Flyers about $11 million in cap space to sign unrestricted free-agent defenseman Jason Smith and restricted free agents Jeff Carter, R.J. Umberger, Randy Jones and Riley Cote.

Can they do it?

"We're going to have to be very creative," Flyers president Peter Luukko said.

Smith is the Flyers' top priority. At 34, he still plays a take-no-prisoners brand of defense and his quiet leadership cannot be overstated on a team that desperately needed -- and found -- a true captain.

Smith is in the final year of a deal that pays him $1.976 million and, despite his age, he should be in line for a three-year deal with an average salary in the $3 million range (perhaps $3.2, $3.2, $2.6).

Here's where it gets a little dicey.

Jeff Carter, who turns 23 next month, is in the final year of a three-year entry-level contract that pays him what Richards was getting before his mega-deal: $942,400.

From a statistical standpoint, Carter's numbers are very comparable to Richards. In 172 games he had 46 goals and 48 assists for 94 points.

Entering Saturday's action, Richards had 35 goals and 66 assists for 101 points in 166 games.

Granted, Carter does not kill penalties or take key faceoffs late in games and does not play on the first-unit power play. In fact, he plays about five fewer minutes a game than Richards.

But he is a dangerous offensive player with tremendous potential and is an integral part of the Flyers' future. Carter likely will request an escalating three- or four-year deal from the Flyers worth about $3 million a season.

The Flyers are likely to offer a one-year deal in the $2 million range to keep Carter away from the vultures of restricted free agency, then work on a lengthy extension if his play deems worthy next season.

Umberger, 25, is also in the final year of his entry-level contract and is getting paid $1.25 million this season. In 181 NHL games Umberger entered Saturday's action with 42 goals and 44 assists for 86 points.

Umberger brings a grittier element to his game than Carter and could be an alternate captain under Richards if he continues to develop as a leader.

Like Carter, Umberger would be an attractive player in the restricted free agent market and the Flyers will try to retain his rights for at least another season.

To keep him a Flyer for next season, the Flyers would likely need to give Umberger similar money to Carter, about $2 million or slightly more.

If Carter and/or Umberger decide they are worth more and hold out for long-term deals, the Flyers run the risk of losing one or both to restricted free agency, which could result in as many as four first-round draft picks as compensation.

Jones, 26, is having his best season as a pro this year. He entered the weekend leading the Flyers with a plus-10 rating. He's making $525,000 this season and will come close to doubling that salary as one of the starting six next season. Let's set his price at an even $1 million.

Cote, 25, is a fearless enforcer who stands up for his teammates and can get in on the forecheck without being a defensive liability. He's making $500,000 this season and would be more than happy to take a salary bump to around $700,000 next season.

If you add that up -- $3 million for Smith, $4 million for Carter and Umberger, and $1.7 million for Jones and Cote -- you're looking at an increase of $8.7 million toward next year's payroll.

That would bump the Flyers' payroll from $44 million to about $53 million.

The Flyers could easily do some salary shedding, if necessary. With defense prospect Ryan Parent ($850,000) looking as if he could be ready for the NHL next season and Derian Hatcher's 35-year-old knees giving him trouble, the Flyers could buy out the final $3.5 million on Hatcher's contract.

In a little more than a year, Holmgren has resurrected the Flyers from the worst team in the NHL to a possible contender. On Thursday he made an incredible leap of faith by securing the biggest piece of the Flyers' future for 12 more seasons.

FLYERS' CAP NUMBERS
2008-09

Daniel Briere: $6.5 million

Kimmo Timonen: $6.333 million

Mike Richards: $5.75 million

Simon Gagne: $5.25 million

Scott Hartnell: $4.2 million

Martin Biron: $3.5 million

Derian Hatcher: $3.5 million

Mike Knuble: $2.8 million

Joffrey Lupul: $2.535 million

Braydon Coburn: $1.3 million

Sami Kapanen: $1.25 million

Scottie Upshall: $1.225 million

Antero Niittymaki: $1.225 million

Lasse Kukkonen: $875,000

Steve Downie: $821,667

Ben Eager: $600,000

Total: $44,164,667

Projected salary cap: $55 million
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