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June 24, 2004 - Primeau proves patience pays
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Keith Primeau
"[Keith] Primeau is the player that we built this team around and will continue to do so." -Flyers' GM Bob Clarke

Primeau proves patience pays
By Shawn P. Roarke |
June 24, 2004

It took Keith Primeau more than a little while to become "The Man".

Along the way, the big center again showed that sometimes patience can be the ultimate tell in the success of any draft pick.

Today, there is little doubt that Primeau, the third-overall pick in the 1990 Entry Draft, is the centerpiece of the Philadelphia Flyers.

But Primeau, drafted by Detroit after Owen Nolan and Petr Nedved were selected that year, did not follow the usual path taken by such high-profile picks in the NHL's annual franchise restocking process. He did not vault to instant stardom, which is often the case for high-end players with discernibly more skill than their peers.

As both Nolan and Nedved found almost immediate success with their respective teams, Primeau was still growing into his large and then-ungainly 6-foot-5 frame, finding his way in a game that he could no longer dominate with brute strength alone. Instead, he meandered, sometimes aimlessly, from season to season and franchise to franchise -- finding as many dead ends as breakthroughs along the way.

The Red Wings gave up on him after six seasons of middling results. He averaged 16 goals and 24 assists a season for Detroit before being shipped to the Hartford Whalers in a blockbuster deal that netted the Wings power forward Brendan Shanahan on Oct. 9, 1996.

The Whalers, who became Carolina the next year, thought they were getting a slightly younger version of Shanahan in the deal. And they did, to a degree, as Primeau averaged 59 points during his three campaigns with the franchise.

But Primeau's union with the Hurricanes was dissolved during the 1999-2000 season as the two parties came to loggerheads over a new contract. Late that season, after sitting out the majority of the campaign, he was dealt to Philadelphia for Rod Brind'Amour, young goalie Jean-Marc Pelletier, and a second-round draft pick.

Primeau arrived in the City of Brotherly Love amid prophecies that he would never reach the potential that saw him drafted third overall a decade earlier. Although it took awhile, Primeau has debunked those suggestions, developing into a player worthy of the hype 14 long years ago. He is now the punishing, two-way center with leadership abilities that a franchise can build around -- something the Flyers admitted by signing Primeau to a new long-term contract this month.

Keith Primeau
Detroit gave up on him [Primeau] after six seasons of middling results.

"For our organization, it will be the biggest and most important signing we have this summer," said Bob Clarke, the Flyers' general manager. "Primeau is the player that we built this team around and will continue to do so. He's the leader of the group.

"Now that we have signed Keith it means that we can start filling in the other places. I don't think you have any chance of being good without top leadership and Keith is a great leader on this club. The players that are around him respond to Keith."

Never was that more evident than in the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In early February, Primeau was knocked out of the lineup with a concussion. He returned with three games left in the regular season -- just long enough to get his legs back under him.

Then, in the playoffs, he carried the team on his back, like a good captain should.

"'Primes' has been a guy that we've been looking to and following," veteran winger John LeClair said during the playoffs. "He's really taken charge of a lot of games, and again today he did the same thing. He was a difference out there, every time goes on the ice."

Before this season, Primeau had managed just nine goals in 110 postseason outings. This season, he netted nine goals, and 16 points, in 18 games as the Flyers advanced to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals before falling to The Tampa Bay Lightning.

Ed Belfour shoves Keith Primeau
Against Toronto in Game 5, threw up a hat trick as the Flyers routed the Maple Leafs.

Primeau did not just score goals. He scored huge goals.

He netted a goal, and added an assist, in Game 1 against New Jersey in the first round, forcefully delivering the message that the Devils -- the defending Stanley Cup champs and perennial Flyer nemisis -- were beatable. Philadelphia won in five games.

Against Toronto, he waited until the all-important Game 5 to score and then threw up a hat trick as the Flyers routed the Maple Leafs to take control of that deadlocked second-round series. The Flyers then put the Leafs away in Game 6.

Then, against the Lightning, Primeau registered a point in four of the seven games. With the Flyers' season on the line at the Wachovia Center in Game 6, Primeau figured in four goals, scoring twice and setting up the game-winner, as the Flyers fashioned a season-saving, come-from-behind 5-4 win in OT before losing two nights later in Game 7.

Clarke, a pretty fair playoff performer for the Flyers in his playing days, was amazed by Primeau's heroics.

"His on-ice performance was obviously above anybody else in the playoffs," Clarke said in announcing Primeau's new deal. "Had we made it to the Stanley Cup Finals he would probably have won the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs."

As magical as the goals were, it was even more glorious to watch Primeau take the team and make it his own with his action both on the ice and in the dressing room. Before scoring the hat trick against Toronto, Primeau told a silent dressing room that he was going to have a big night and wanted to know who planned to follow his lead.

The Sedin twins
"There has to be a one-on-one relationship with the coach if you are ever going to have success." -Ken Hitchcock

It was quite a leap of faith for a player that had struggled in the past with the mantle of leadership and the weight of unfulfilled expectations; a player that was blamed, somewhat unfairly, for running coach Bill Barber out of town just a few years earlier.

And, it also confirmed the faith new coach Ken Hitchcock placed in Primeau, believing the captain could become an elite leader even after player and coach got off to a rough start. They did not speak for the first week of Hitchcock's tenure, according to the coach.

"Finally, we went and had lunch together," says Hitchcock. "I just told him that after talking it over with some people who I trusted here, (I) felt that he was the best choice for captain, so he's our captain and here's what I expect. Then we worked together.

"I tried to help him with some leadership manuals and some guides and some reading material. He was very serious about trying to improve as a captain. And I said this before, it's like football coaches with their quarterbacks, or it's like baseball coaches with their catchers, that's what it's like with a captain. There has to be a one-on-one relationship with the coach if you are ever going to have success."

In just two years, that relationship has blossomed into a successful union of captain and coach, a winning formula appreciated by the other players on the team.

"I think the responsibility that Hitch puts into Keith really gives him that much more of a driving focus to know that he's responsible for 22 guys, leading 22 guys," said veteran winger Jeremy Roenick. "It's a tough thing, but I think not too many people are as gung-ho about it as Keith has been. He's brought his level to the game that, to tell you the truth, that I didn't think he could do. Maybe that he didn't think he could do, but he's definitely been the best player in the playoffs for us."

And, in the end, he proved to be a player worth waiting for -- a lesson some of those scouts seated at the big tables at the RBC Center for the 2004 NHL Entry Draft might want to remember this weekend.