By CHUCK GORMLEY
Special to The News Journal
VOORHEES, N.J. -- Keith Primeau's long and painful quest to return from a concussion and play for the Flyers this season will end today at an 11 a.m. press conference at the Skate Zone.
The Flyers' 34-year-old captain met with general manager Bob Clarke on Monday afternoon, and the two decided it was time for Primeau to call it a season and the Flyers to come up with a plan to replace him.
"The doctors have talked to Keith about it and he's got all the information," Clarke said. "It's horrible, but there's really nothing he or we can do about it."
Primeau is expected to announce that he will not play the remaining 24 games of the regular season and will sit out the Stanley Cup playoffs. He will, however, leave open the possibility of returning next season. Primeau has two more years remaining on a contract that pays him $3,166,700 per season.
Primeau's announcement will free up space under the NHL's $39 million salary cap. Already, there is speculation the Flyers will attempt to trade for St. Louis Blues forward Keith Tkachuk ($5.7 million, with a one-year option), Pittsburgh Penguins forward Mark Recchi ($1.995 million, with one more year) or Florida Panthers forward Olli Jokinen ($2.5 million, unrestricted next season).
The NHL trading deadline is March 9.
"Keith's money is available to us," Clarke said. "We have to figure out what to do.
"We'll see what's available to us. I can't see too many players being available because there are only a few teams right now you'd say won't make the playoffs.
"But I'd rather have Keith than anybody we could trade for. No one can bring us what Keith brings us."
Primeau, the Flyers' leading scorer in the 2004 playoffs with 16 points in 18 games, has tried desperately to regain that form.
He has missed the last 49 games with post-concussion symptoms stemming from a blow he received on Oct. 25 from Montreal forward Alexander Perezhogin. Since then, Primeau has tried everything to return to the Flyers, including soft tissue massage therapy, balance training and various medications.
Primeau last skated on Saturday. According to a medical report placed on Clarke's desk on Monday, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound center still was suffering dizziness.
"I can empathize with Keith," said Flyers defenseman Chris Therien, who is still experiencing blurred vision from a concussion he suffered on Feb. 4. "He's missed the whole year, basically. It's been tough on him. We as players have seen him go through a lot trying to come back.
"I feel bad because of all the hard work he's put in, but I think he's really got to look at his future. The last thing anyone wants to see is Keith getting hurt again and having this affect him the rest of his life."
Clarke said he has asked the NHL to make a ruling on whether Primeau can return to the Flyers for the playoffs if he is symptom free in mid-April or early May. The league was expected to give a reply today. Still, Clarke said the chances of Primeau returning are miniscule.
"If the decision is made that he can't play for the rest of the season, he probably wouldn't play in the playoffs because it would be pretty tough to play after missing almost two years," Clarke said.
Clarke did not leave open the possibility of Primeau playing in the final week of the regular season because if the Flyers make a trade for another high-priced player, Primeau's return would put the team over the salary cap.
"We can't allow that to happen," Clarke said.
Of the three players most likely to draw interest from the Flyers, Recchi might be the best fit. The 38-year-old right winger is second on the Penguins in goals (21) and assists (32). He is familiar with Ken Hitchcock's system and reportedly has expressed a desire to return to Philadelphia.
Tkachuk, 33, has 11 goals and 12 assists in just 16 games for the Blues and has told reporters he would waive his no-trade clause if he is dealt to a contender. The biggest obstacle for any team is Tkachuk's $5.7 million salary.
Jokinen, 27, has the most upside of the three. He is coming off a strong showing for Finland in the Olympics and leads the Panthers in goals (25) and assists (34). His $2.5 million salary is a bargain, but he already turned down a four-year $16 million offer from the Panthers and would come at a high price if the Flyers intended to keep him.
To get any of the players mentioned, the Flyers probably would have to surrender some combination of rookie forward R.J. Umberger, a defenseman (Kim Johnsson) or defense prospects (Randy Jones or Freddy Meyer), and future draft picks.