THE DAY THE Flyers signed Braydon Coburn to a 2-year contract extension 2 weeks ago, general manager Paul Holmgren said Mike Richards would be next.

Richards was coming up to his first year of restricted free agency and the last thing Holmgren wanted was for another team to attempt to lure the 22-year-old center with a huge contract offer the way Edmonton got Dustin Penner from Anaheim this year.

"I don't pay attention to that stuff," Richards said the next day. "My agent does that. I'm just happy to be here."

In most cases, that might be what a jaded veteran told the youngster to say. With Richards, the answer was genuine. Since the day he stepped into the Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees, he has never looked like anything but a kid with the keys to his dad's new car.

Yesterday, the Flyers gave Richards a set of keys to the rink along with 12-year extension worth approximately $69 million, and an average salary of $5.7 million a year. It kicks in next season and runs through the 2019-20 season. He is making about $940,000 this season.

The day would have been complete if the Flyers had managed a home win against the Montreal Canadiens. Instead, the Flyers fell behind in the first period, surrendered three second-period goals and lost, 4-1, their sixth loss in the last seven home games.

No matter, there is plenty of time for better games for Richards, especially the way he has played this year. He leads the team with 14 goals and 21 assists.

And he meant what he said about wanting to be a Flyer.

"[Holmgren] and I had a little bit of a conversation just after the season started and kind of talked about what we wanted. I told him that I wanted to be a part of Philadelphia and the organization for my career or as long as I can," he said.

"After that, [Holmgren] came up and asked me if I was serious. I was. I love the city, I love the organization and when I was given the opportunity I was excited to be here for the next 12 years."

And that's where he'll be unless the Flyers want to move him. The deal does not include a no-trade clause until Richards turns 27, the first year he would have been able to become an unrestricted free agent.

That is not likely to happen, and Richards' new deal will keep him with the Flyers until he is 35 and give him a chance to become only the third career Flyer in franchise history, along with Bill Barber and Bob Clarke.

"It's a lot of money," Richards conceded. "The next 12 years of my life, I guess, is going to be fun. But that's overlooked by the opportunity to play here in Philadelphia. [Team chairman] Ed Snider and Paul Holmgren have given me the chance I wanted, to be here."

It was not about the money, he said: "I look at it as me getting a chance to play in the NHL for another 12 years. As a kid, that's all you want. You don't look at the dollar value, you look at how long you can play, and hopefully it's a long time. Twelve is just a number. I'm hoping I can play longer."

The contract is the second-longest existing contract in the league, behind Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro, who last year signed a 15-year deal worth $67.5 million.

In the new NHL world of salary caps, this kind of deal could come more frequently. It helps to stabilize the cap and locks the best young talent into situations where they could become career players for that team.

It is believed Calgary wants to do the same with star defenseman Dion Phaneuf.

There are risks, and it's not a deal that can be made with just any player. But in the case of a player with a solid character and work ethic, it does more than stabilize the salary cap; it sets a standard for every other player who walks onto that team.

Richards will be captain of the Flyers someday. This kind of deal gives him a feeling of ownership.

"I don't know that I could say that the Flyers would sign any of our other young players to a contract of this length . . . the intangibles he brings to the table, it makes him unique in that regard," Holmgren said. "It's not to downplay the value of our other young players, we just consider [Richards] a unique player."

Jeff Carter is another of the players Holmgren must consider. Like Richards, he said last night he is not thinking about it.

"[Richards] deserves everything he got," Carter said. "I'm not worried about it. What happens will happen. I've got to just go out and keep on playing.

"I love it here. There are great people here, I love the city and hopefully we can work something out."

Holmgren has built a good, young team that has a chance to be good for years to come, and now he's making sure that he keeps it together and protects his young players emerging from their entry contracts from raiding teams.

"The threat is real," Holmgren said. "When you have young players going into a period of restricted free agency, it's there, and we didn't want to put [Richards] in that situation.

"We have a couple of other players on our team now that are in similar contract situations. We'll take a look at those guys over the next few months.

"Is it good that these young players jump from their entry-level contract to the money they're making? I don't know that we can answer that, but it's a big jump. But we needed to do what is right for the organization and we did that in signing [Richards] to this deal." *