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March 28, 2006 - It has taken the Philadelphia Flyers a long time to adjust to the absence

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It has taken the Philadelphia Flyers a long time to adjust to the absence -- on ice and off -- of Keith Primeau

PHILADELPHIA -- Fans tend to evaluate players by their statistics. Coaches, being a lot closer to the action, use a whole series of other criteria, many of which are in evidence in places the fans never get to see.

So while fans see Keith Primeau of the Philadelphia Flyers as a high-level player, his coaches see him as much more than that -- the single most important player in the franchise.

For most of this season, the Flyers have had to muddle through without Primeau. He suffered a concussion on Oct. 25 and hasn't been back. And he won't be back this season, no matter how far the Flyers might advance in the playoffs.

He stays around the team. He does therapy three times a week and he's on the bike every day. Only now is he starting to have hope that his career isn't over.

"I'm finally feeling as though there's a chance I'll be back next year," he said yesterday. "It has taken a long time for me to finally be able to say that. I'm very encouraged, and looking positively toward next year."

But in the interim, the Flyers are genuine Stanley Cup contenders. In their past playoff run, Primeau was their leader. One of the concerns of the organization is the difficulty of finding someone to fill that role for this year's run.

"Look, nobody replaces Keith," Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said. "From our coaching staff's side, our perspective is that Keith was able to dissect the information inside the locker room and from the coaching staff and present it to both sides clearly and concisely without the garbage that went around it.

"He was able to cut to the chase very quickly from both sides -- which is very unique. He made our job and the players' job easier, more black and white, more consistent."

Hitchcock is a great believer in communication -- as long as it's fruitful. Primeau made sure that was the case.

"There were some things he said to me I didn't like," Hitchcock said. "I didn't like the tone sometimes. But most times, he was right. Then there were some times he didn't like the information coming from me, but he knew how to separate the message from the messenger.

"This information was going back and forth and allowing us to really compete at a high level. It took us awhile to get it changed over."

In fact, it took most of the season.

"Our plan when Keith went out was to let it evolve," Hitchcock said. "We were going to see who stepped up. But when we started having trouble winning hockey games, there wasn't the flow of information coming from the coaches to the room and from the room to the coaches.

"There wasn't a problem when things were going well, but when we hit the dump, then things started to surface. We tried to let it evolve, but it wasn't happening."

So about two months ago, Hitchcock made Derian Hatcher captain. Together, they formed a committee of senior players headed by Hatcher.

The problems started to be less severe. "The flow of information got very consistent and strong," Hitchcock said.

Primeau is out of the picture, but Hitchcock is hoping he has found a way to compensate. "It's more (by) committee now," he said. "It's not one guy, but there are some strong voices in that room now.

"There was one guy who was kind of above everybody. He would have no problem knocking on the door and saying, 'Hey! This is what the team needs today.' "

But that guy is gone. Isn't Hitchcock worried that this is like a baseball team without a closer, that it's the old bullpen-by-committee trick that never works?

"No. Not anymore," he said. "We had problems not because we didn't have good guys, but because nobody felt it was their place. They feel it's their place now.

"Keith is trying to get back to being a hockey player some day and our team has had to adjust."

Only time will tell whether the adjustment was successful.