WITH THE future of the Flyers now tucked away in the barn, the focus turns to fixing the needs of the present roster.
After selecting two defensemen, two goalies and a center, shipping R.J. Umberger to Columbus, and trading with Washington for defenseman Steve Eminger, Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said he would take a few days off and then begin zeroing in on the free-agent market, his unsigned players and that ever-challenging salary cap.
The ceiling for the cap should be announced by the league this week, and it is expected to be around $56 million. That number won't give the Flyers the kind of room they had last year to come out swinging for the top free-agent defensemen, where the Flyers need the most help.
"We've got to take a few days off and then get back to work," Holmgren said after wrapping up the entry draft over the weekend in Ottawa. "We had a good weekend. We restocked our cupboard and by adding Eminger, he's a guy that can step in and help us right away. We're pleased with the results."
Holmgren's immediate job will be finishing the deals he is working on with restricted free agents Jeff Carter, Randy Jones and Riley Cote.
Holmgren said the Flyers are very close to finalizing a multiyear deal with Carter, are also close with Cote, and are confident they can get Jones on paper before free agency opens July 1.
Eminger, acquired along with a third-round pick (which was used to draft goalie Jacob DeSerres) from the Capitals for the 27th pick overall, is also going to be without a contract July 1, but Holmgren said it will not be a difficult negotiation. Eminger made $1 million last season.
When all those contracts are completed, Holmgren will have to deal with his unrestricted free agents, the most prominent being defenseman Jason Smith, who made $1.9 million last season and probably will command a bigger ticket. Holmgren had discussions with Smith during the season but was unable to reach a deal. The Flyers have not made Smith an offer and it is unlikely he will be back, despite Holmgren's comments that he would like to have him.
Another question the Flyers have is the future of Derian Hatcher, the big, stay-at-home defender who is playing on a left knee that lacks cartilage. Hatcher wants to play another season and has a year left on his contract; it would be good if he comes back healthy.
Holmgren said Eminger will compete for a spot on the roster. That's also Eminger's plan.
"I'm going to work hard the rest of the summer and come into camp and work really hard and see where that puts me," said Eminger, a first-round pick by the Capitals, 12th overall, in 2002.
Eminger, 24, played only 20 regular-season games last season before injuries forced Washington to play him during the first-round playoff series against the Flyers. He said his problem with the Capitals was too many coaches and mixed messages.
"In my 5 years, I had three different coaches," he said. "There were a lot of mixed messages. One wanted me to be a defensive defenseman and then they wanted me to be an offensive defenseman. It was hard to establish an identity. I want to be a little bit of both and play physical. That's my game."
If it works out, he will be a good, young addition, but the Flyers still will need more mobility to find a consistent way to get out of the defensive zone and up ice. And that will mean another puck-moving, offensive defenseman.
Topping the list of free agents is, of course, San Jose's Brian Campbell, who left Buffalo last season at the trade deadline because he couldn't get the money he wanted. But he is a player the Flyers will not be able to sign under the constraints of the cap, as is Wade Redden, Ottawa's free-agent defenseman.
To make that kind of room, Holmgren would have to move more players, and he probably doesn't want to do that. Umberger was enough of a loss for one offseason.
There will be some salary adjustments but not enough to go over the top as the Flyers did last summer. So they will look at the list of free agents in the midsalary range, including Colorado's John-Michael Liles, Buffalo's Dmitri Kalinin and Montreal's Mark Streit.
"We'll be right up against the upper limit of the cap," Holmgren said. "But there are ways to be creative and we will look at those ways. We need to concentrate on ways to make our team better for next season.