With the 2007-08 Flyers season in the rearview mirror, general manager Paul Holmgren discussed some of the tough decisions he and the front-office staff face this offseason.

Unlike last year, when the team was coming off a historically feeble season and the No. 1 question was, "What the hell just happened?", the Flyers are reloading, not rebuilding. In one season, they went from last place to conference finalists and the feeling at the team's offices in Voorhees, N.J., is that they are very close to ending a 33-year Stanley Cup drought. We'll see.

Priority No. 1

First up is negotiating with the restricted free agents, most notably Jeff Carter, R.J. Umberger and Randy Jones. All will receive handsome raises some time this summer, but it's possible those raises could come from other teams. The Flyers would have the option to match any offer, but if somebody came in and threw a boatload of money at say, Carter, the Flyers could decide not to re-sign the 23-year-old and instead take compensatory draft picks.

"We'll get him signed," Holmgren said, flatly. "I have no doubts about that . . . I refuse to live in fear [of what other teams might do]."

Jason Smith, Vinny Prospal, Jaroslav Modry and Jim Dowd are slated to become unrestricted free agents on July 1; they can sign elsewhere and the Flyers would receive no compensation.

The blue line

Adding skill and depth to the defense also is high on the priority list. Holmgren, if only for a moment, became very emotional when discussing the future of Smith and Derian Hatcher. The two veteran defensemen endured numerous injuries (and subsequent medical injections) to play significant minutes during the postseason. Smith's return is considered unlikely and Hatcher, though under contract for next season, must decide whether he can withstand a 17th NHL season.

"Our overall mobility and speed on the back end needs to get better," Holmgren said. "Whether we have those players internally or not, we'll see."

The Flyers could take another dive into the free-agent pool come July 1. San Jose's Brian Campbell is at the top of the class, but other interesting names will be out there. Montreal's Mark Streit, Ottawa's Wade Redden and the Rangers' Michal Rozsival are among those perhaps a step below Campbell's class.

Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Randy Jones and youngster Ryan Parent are the Flyers' top four defensemen at the moment.

The kids

Winger Claude Giroux, the 2006 first-round pick, recently won the playoff MVP award in helping the Gatineau Olympiques win the coveted Quebec Major Junior championship, and will be a factor for the Flyers next season.

"He's going to be a hard guy to keep off our team," Holmgren said.

Parent, who played in four postseason games as an injury replacement, also will get a long look in training camp. As will Steve Downie, the 21-year-old forward who showed flashes in a rookie season that started with a 20-game suspension and ended with costly turnovers in the playoffs.

"This is a critical summer for our team and certainly for our young players," coach John Stevens said. "We asked for a big commitment last year and it needs to be an even bigger commitment this year. For guys like Steve Downie and Ryan Parent, their preparation over the summer is critical. They are going to be given every opportunity next year to earn a spot on our team."

James vanRiemsdyk, the 6-3, 205-pound winger who the Flyers drafted No. 2 overall last year, recently decided to return to the University of New Hampshire.

The captaincy

The emergence of Mike Richards was one of the season's most pleasant surprises. Holmgren said that even if incumbent Jason Smith returns, sewing the "C" on Richards' jersey before next season is a possibility.

Stevens concurred.

"That's a discussion we'll have," Stevens said. "It's clear that 'Richie' made huge gains in his ability to be a leader on our team. He was one of our best players every night on both sides of the puck. He's clearly proven himself. He's earned the respect of his teammates and the organization. There's no question he deserves consideration to be a big part of our leadership next year."

The coach

Holmgren was particularly impressed with how the Flyers rebounded from a 7-1 loss at Pittsburgh on March 16 that put their playoff hopes in deep doubt.

He credited Stevens with the 7-1-1 finish that netted the Flyers the Eastern Conference's sixth seed. Holmgren said he will get to work on extending the coach's contract, which is due to expire after 2008-09. Stevens, the Cool Hand Luke of NHL coaches, says no worries.

"I haven't thought about that," Stevens said. "My contract is in place for next year. There's so much going on, there's other things to be done right now. Evaluations to be done on our team, our season, with our players, medical [exams], there's an awful lot to be done outside of me."

Simon Gagne

Simon Gagne began the season as alternate captain and ended it trying to shake out the cobwebs of concussion symptoms.

Gagne, 28, was limited to just 25 games, in which he posted seven goals and 11 assists.

"I believe that he'll be a good player for us next year and a healthy player," said Holmgren, pointing out the Gagne was skating at season's end. "I haven't seen any reports or heard from our doctors or the doctors that have seen Simon that have led me to believe otherwise."

What's next

The draft is June 20, and the Flyers will pick 27th in the first round.

It will be the third time Philadelphia has the 27th pick. They are 1-for-2.

In 1984, Philadelphia selected Scott Mellanby, a key member of the two Stanley Cup finalists teams in the 1980s. In 2001, the Flyers picked Jeff Woywitka, a defenseman who never suited up for the Flyers and was part of the December 2003 deal that brought the equally forgettable Mike Comrie to Philadelphia.

"We have positive things we're looking at," Holmgren said, generally speaking. "Now it's up to us to add to that and make the team a better team." *