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February 2001 - Primeau Donna? - Philadelphia Flyers center Keith Primeau

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Primeau Donna? - Philadelphia Flyers center Keith Primeau
 

After years of supposed petulance Keith Primeau finally has his wish: To be the No. I center on a top team. Now he has to prove that he is deserving of that honor

REPLACING A LEGEND IS NEVER easy, but for the Philadelphia Flyers' new top center, Keith Primeau, replacing captain Eric Lindros and playing in front of packed crowds at the First Union Center came as a relief. Primeau's three years with the Hartford Whalers and Carolina Hurricanes--much of it spent competing in half-empty arenas--were much more challenging.

"It's actually mentally tougher to come to the rink and play there, because you're in front of only 3,000 or 4,000 people," says Primeau. "Philadelphia really is a hockey town. People are crazy about the Flyers and the building is always full. You can't go anywhere without people recognizing you. For me, that has put the fun back in hockey."

Still, the 6'5", 220-pound hard-nosed Primeau has some big skates to fill. For eight years Lindros has been Philadelphia's franchise player and one of rite best all-around players in the game. And Lindros still casts a long shadow over the team he failed to lead to a Stanley Cup.

Now Primeau fills the roles that belonged to Lindros: Special-teams leader, the Flyers' primary physical presence, and the one of the players expected to lead the team in scoring.

For many players, being compared to Lindros would be a distraction, but Primeau doesn't seem to be bothered. "I honestly don't feel any additional pressure," says Primeau, who broke into the in 1991 with the Detroit Red Wings. "I'll say the same thing I did last year, `I'm not going to replace Rod Brind'Amour and I'm definitely not going to replace Eric Lindros.' I'm just going to play my game. I hope that is good enough."

Primeau's Flyers teammates have noticed the new star center's nonchalance and are appreciative. "Keith has a quiet confidence and he handles pressure fairly well," says forward Rick Tocchet. "I just don't think pressure gets to him very much."

Under any circumstances Philadelphia is still a better place for Primeau to be than Carolina, where a bitter salary dispute with owner Peter Karmanos led to a prolonged holdout. Primeau's name was tossed around as, trade bait in several potential deals, including one with the Phoenix Coyotes for Keith Tkachuk and a three-way deal trade involving the Coyotes and New York Rangers. Even today, Primeau refuses to talk about his rupture with the Hurricanes.

After Philadelphia acquired Primeau in exchange for Brind'Amour, highly touted goalie Jetta-Marc Pelletier, and a second-round draft pick, the Flyers signed him to a five-year, $21-million contract. He will earn $4.25 million this year and $5 million in each of the next three seasons.

By most accounts, Primeau appears to have handled the pressure of playing in Philadelphia like any franchise player would. After all, that is what he was in Carolina, where he averaged 27 goals and 31 assists a season from 1996-99. "Keith thrives on pressure," Philadelphia coach Craig Ramsey says. "He likes the challenge of being a top player."

Primeau began this season centering a line with LeClair and 19-year-old rookie Justin Williams. Although LeClair and Primeau have played together less than a year, a synergy has grown between them. "It would be hard for anybody to follow Eric," John LeClair says. "But Primeau has already been a No. 1 center. He handles the responsibilities well both on and off the ice. He has done a terrific job for us."

But Philadelphia's No. 1 line became a merry-go-round when back surgery sidelined LeClair. In the first month of the season alone, Primeau played with Tocchet, Jody Hull, Marc Recchi, Kevin Stevens, Gino Odjick, and Keith Jones.

Playing with LeClair again will no doubt benefit Primeau.

"I played with some skilled guys in Detroit over my five years there: Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Dino Ciccarelli, and Ray Sheppard," Primeau says. "John is a different type of player. He is a true power forward. I try to pick up on the things he does and the ability he has to score goals."

Primeau came to Philadelphia in late January 2000, after scoring 30 goals the previous season. It was a controversial move by general manager Bob Clarke, because the Flyers dealt Brind'Amour, the team's heart-and-soul leader and most gritty player, in order to get Primeau. Besides, it was felt that Philadelphia needed goaltending and defensive help more than another big forward.

"The goal here from management on down is the Stanley Cup," Primeau says. "That's why I feel so good to be here, because you know every year the Flyers have an opportunity to win the Cup. Just making the playoffs does not make for a successful season here."

In 23 regular-season games, Primeau totaled seven goals and 10 assists. He experienced an eventful postseason, scoring the game-winning goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins in a five-overtime game, but two days later, Penguins defenseman Bob Boughner knocked him cold with a bone-jarring open-ice hit, suffering a concussion in the process.

Many feared Primeau would be lost for the rest of the playoffs, but he bounced back and turned in a solid performance against the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference finals.

"I think last year was a pretty, dreadful year for Keith, considering what he went through," Ramsey says. "Then he came here ,and got hurt on top of all that. But certainly late in the season he was a big-time performer for us."

Primeau even duked it out with Devils forward Randy McKay after he bounced recovered from his concussion. He also sparred with 6'4", 210-pound defenseman Colin White, earning the respect of his teammates, who labeled him a warrior.

When he was not battling with his fists, Primeau also battled the Devils' Bobby Holik for faceoffs and controlled the lion's share.

Primeau, one of the league's bigger multi-skilled centers, enjoys physical play. "I try to use my size to my advantage, defensively, Clown low in the corners and on faceoffs, and, offensively, down low in the corners and in front of the net," he says.

"I like his size," says Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland. "Anybody that big, who can play in every situation, and has pretty decent skill level is a very valuable commodity."

Primeau became a restricted free agent following the 1998.99 season, his first as an All-Star. He had just led the Hurricanes to a Southeast Division title and the franchise's first playoff appearance since 1992, but he could not agree on terms for a new contract with Karmanos and Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford. Primeau had refused to go to arbitration and the Hurricanes offered Primeau two years and 87 million. He asked for 85 million a year.

The impasse eventually turned ugly, with Karmanos calling Primeau a "prima donna," and Primeau vowing never to play for Carolina again. "It was a contract stalemate," Primeau says. "I completed my contract. I felt very comfortable with my stance. I wouldn't change it for the world.

"Everything worked out for the best. When it came down to it, there were two or three teams I was steering toward. When I heard I was traded to Philadelphia, I was elated."

The highlight of Primeau's Carolina years came in 1998--and not in a Hurricanes uniform. Primeau was a member of the gold medal-winning Canadian team in the Nagano Winter Olympics.

Detroit made Primeau the No. 3 overall pick in the eye-catching 1990 draft. Owen Nolan went first to the Quebec Nordiques, Jaromir Jagr went fifth to Pittsburgh, and Derian Hatcher went eighth to the Minnesota North Stars. Later in the first round, Tkachuk and Martin Brodeur were drafted.

Primeau joined the Red Wings right away as an 18-year-old, which both the team and, eventually, he admitted was a mistake. Still, he had some good years in Detroit, scoring 31 goals in 1993-94, and 27 in 1995-96, his last season with the Red Wings.

Things turned sour in Detroit in the 1996 playoffs when Primeau scored just one goal in 17 games. Fretting about his role on the team with so many stars, Primeau demanded a trade to a club where he could be the No. 1 center. He also grew fired of switching from center to left wing and back. The Red Wings obliged, sending him, Paul Coffey, and a first-round pick to Hartford for left wing Brendan Shanahan and defenseman Brian Glynn.

Primeau declined to do interviews with Detroit reporters for a few years after the deal.

"I think he has turned out to be the player that we hoped he would be," Holland says. "It's just a matter of the big guy putting it all together. I just think that each and every year that goes by, Keith gets more confident. He can play with anyone in the league. He is a pressure player."

Now Primeau has his wish and he is a No. 1 center. However, whether he is a true pressure player is still yet to be seen.