VOORHEES, N.J. - Was it just the luck of the draw, or did the Flyers deliberately place Mike Richards' locker
right next to the one belonging to Keith Primeau?
Either way, Richards will be getting groomed to someday become the team's next captain.
At 20, and before he's even played his first NHL game, Richards is being called a natural-born leader.
North of the border, his reputation already extends from one ocean to the other. At the World Junior Championships,
they nicknamed him "Captain Canada.''
Oh, by the way, that team won the gold medal in a breeze.
And less than a year later, Richards was lugging a Calder Cup triumphantly around the Wachovia Center ice.
Now the Flyers are hoping the success story continues at the NHL level.
"He's just the whole package for me,'' coach Ken Hitchcock said after Tuesday's camp workout. "He's going
to be a great player in our league. Even this year he's going to be a good player for us.''
Hockey people have seen what Hitchcock has done for Primeau's development as a leader the past couple seasons.
There were some question marks after Primeau harshly criticized former coach Bill Barber days after the Flyer
legend was canned in May, '02. But Hitchcock cleared away those doubts by getting the captain to produce some of the best
performances of his life - on and off the ice - in last year's playoffs.
Perhaps some of that will rub off on Richards.
"We just want the younger guys around confident people,'' Hitchcock explained. "Mike is a guy who doesn't
need much direction. He's already motivated; he reminds you of a 10-year pro the way he carries and handles himself.
"I think all we want him to do is just play. We don't need to worry about numbers. Keeping him around Keith,
he's going to have the right set of values.''
Patrick Sharp got a first-hand view of the way Richards led by example in the Phantoms' postseason run.
"He just carries himself like a professional,'' Sharp said. "He's never late, he's always on time. He knows
what's going on, he follows the rules and he's a good team player. He's friends with everyone in the locker room, and he's
someone I look up to ... and he's several years younger than me.''
Richards posted fairly modest totals of 22 goals and 58 points in 43 games during his final year of junior
at Kitchener (OHL).
However, it's his overall ability that makes him such a valuable player. He plays both ends of the ice. When
Hitchcock needed a right wing to fill the Peter Forsberg line, he was able to move Jeff Carter to the flank because he knew
he had Richards waiting at center.
It's like having a 20-year-old who's going on 30 in the area of leadership.
"I think it somewhat comes natural,'' Richards said. "You always want to know what's going on with your team.
The biggest thing about leadership is being able to perform on the ice the way you want the guys to perform. Lead by example.''
With Primeau just off to his right, Richards doesn't have to go far to ask questions.
"I didn't request it, but I'm glad to sit beside him,'' Richards said. "It's not just Keith, it's everyone
in here. I watch to see how they carry themselves in the dressing room, around the rink, up in the workout area.
"To see how the pros do it is really beneficial. You just try to take that and do your best.''
Like any natural leader would.
The Flyers expect close to a full house for tonight's preseason game against the New York Islanders (7:05)
at Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton. Antero Niittymaki will start in goal for the Flyers (1-0). ... Hitchcock plans to give
rookie defenseman Randy Jones a lot of playing time for evaluation purposes. ... Brian Savage, signed as a free agent last
Thursday, will make his debut on a line with Richards. ... Hitchcock is also giving defenseman Joni Pitkanen experimentation
time on the right side. The lefty shooter is accustomed to playing on the left, but the Flyers are top-heavy on that side
with veterans Derian Hatcher, Mike Rathje, Chris Therien and Dennis Seidenberg. "We think from a puck movement standpoint,
Joni is better over there,'' Hitchcock said. Pitkanen will play with Rathje.