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Sam Donnellon: I would rather C Timonen as Flyers captain

PAUL HOLMGREN has made some incredible moves in his two seasons as Flyers general manager. John Stevens has pushed a lot of correct buttons as Flyers coach.

PAUL HOLMGREN has made some incredible moves in his two seasons as Flyers general manager.

John Stevens has pushed a lot of correct buttons as Flyers coach.

But they may have over-reached this week in picking 23-year-old Mike Richards to captain this year's Flyers instead of some of the older names in the mix. For the simple reason that it is too much, and too soon.

Richards is much younger than those who will wear the A aside him this season - younger, really than most of the team. Simon Gagne is 28, Daniel Briere will be 31 in October, and Kimmo Timonen is 33. My pick would have been Timonen, who was a captain for the Nashville Predators, has been a warrior, and has acted as both a buffer and barometer for the players in the room since coming to the Flyers prior to last season.

"You can make a strong case for any of them," Stevens said over the phone yesterday. "Which is good."

He's right there. But I think the strongest case is allowing Richards to grow into the role underneath a guy like Timonen, who often offered brutally frank answers during last year's uneven ride to the Eastern Conference Finals. He was the sense-making locker-room orator, drawing on the lessons of his past to offer perspective and hope for the Flyers' immediate future. Don't take the playoffs for granted, he often preached. Because you never know when you will get this chance again.

He played hard, played hurt and rushed back from a scary, life-threatening blood clot to get back into the lineup at the end.

Make no mistake: Richards is that guy. He just doesn't need to be that guy yet, not with all the experience that surrounds him on this team. Let him play that complete game of his, be part of the leadership group, get a sense of how it's done the way Derek Jeter learned from Tino Martinez years ago. Jeter was a monotone mummy those first few years of his career. It's amazing to see the finished product now.

Stevens pointed out that a young Derian Hatcher was named captain in a similar spot with Dallas years ago, at 23 wearing the C on a team that also included veterans like Guy Carbonneau, Mike Modano, Joe Nieuwendyk and, eventually, Brett Hull. But he also pointed out that Hatcher wore that C for 5 years before the Stars won their Cup, and Hatcher will be the first to tell you that he got better at it as he got older.

So, the coach was asked, list a few things that make a good captain.

"For me, it's a player who is never going to ask his teammates to do something that he isn't willing to do himself," Stevens said. "He's committed to winning. And he leads by example, which connects to that first one.

"And," Stevens said. "He has to have the same concern for the group as he does for himself."

Timonen proved to be that guy last year. Richards has been that guy his whole career. The difference is just one of numbers, a decade more for one guy than the other.

People say talking to reporters isn't an important facet of leadership. That depends. If we're talking about Curt Schilling talking to reporters, or Terrell Owens talking to reporters, or even Jeremy Roenick talking to reporters, I'm with you.

You have to be a teammate, one of the guys, someone who evokes a positive response from every player in the room. Last season, Timonen did it by taking on all the big assignments, taking on all the extra minutes, taking all that extra time before games, between games, after games, framing the situation for us, and for his teammates. He wasn't the captain, officially, but you wouldn't have guessed that if you walked into that room after the Caps forced the Flyers to a Game 7.

Anyway, it's Stevens' call and it's clear he has given this decision a lot of thought, a summer's worth really. And it is just as clear in talking to him that he wanted Richards all along.

"He's going to carry the message of the hockey team," said Stevens, entering his third season as Flyers coach. "I'm very comfortable with Mike in that regard, going back to our time together with the Phantoms.

"I remember we lost a crucial game against Wilkes-Barre after he turned the puck over. He blamed himself over and over. The next game he was by far the best player on the ice and all he did afterwards was talk about the plays the rest of the team made.

"He will be up front taking the bullets. And he will be there to distribute the credit."

The hope is that none of it will affect his play.

And that Stevens didn't push the right button a bit too soon this time. *

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