L

UCA SBISA

was getting a stick ready in the Verizon Center, long before most of his teammates had arrived.

As he was putting the finishing touches on the tape, a line of Flyers began arriving, led by Mike Richards.

Without looking directly at Richards, Sbisa began hopping up and down and grinning. Richards got the message and he began hopping up and down until, at just the right moment, the two hopped into each other, a kind of sideways chest thump.

The little byplay brought an ear-to-ear grin from the Flyers captain.

"Kids," Richards said as he turned the corner out of the hallway and into the dressing room.

It was pure Luca Sbisa.

When the Flyers drafted this 18-year-old Swiss kid after trading R.J. Umberger for the pick, there was no indication that he would be with the Flyers 42 games into the season.

But here he is. Injuries to other defensemen gave him a shot and he has been a story line for the team all year: Should he make the team? Should he stay and then be sent back to junior hockey? Can he develop at the NHL level? What will happen when the defense gets healthy? Will he have to go back now that Danny Briere appears ready to come back and the Flyers need cap space?

Sbisa has answered all of the questions he has anything to do with. He has played well, managed to develop and proved himself a versatile addition to the team, capable of filling in even on wing.

But the Flyers are back to the question of what they should do now that they need the cap space. Sending Sbisa back to juniors is an option, but for what they would get - $875,000 in salary - and what they might lose in the development of the kid, I hope they find a way to keep him.

He brings so much to the team. He's fast, has great skills, is tough and can take the physical play. Alex Ovechkin tried to flatten him in Washington and Brad May tried in the 4-1 home win over Toronto on Saturday, and Sbisa just kept playing.

He also adds intangible "kid" chemistry and I think that alone has earned him the right to stay.

"Hopefully he does," Richards said. "He's a good player and if he goes back he's going to play a lot. He's a really good defenseman now. In a couple years he's probably going to be scary good."

Injury help

The injuries to the Flyers continue to pile up, but the news is not completely bad from a salary cap standpoint.

Josh Gratton underwent abdominal surgery Friday and will be placed on long-term injury. He will be joined there by Jon Kalinski, who remained in West Jersey Hospital yesterday recovering from a severe leg contusion that has required surgery to drain.

Gratton will be out up to 5 weeks and Kalinski, who has been in the hospital for a week, will be out for at least that long, if not longer. That will give general manager Paul Holmgren a chance to avoid making a trade to make room for the return of Briere and make one or two small moves to keep Sbisa from going back to juniors.

Briere has been skating hard in practices and is targeting tomorrow night against Pittsburgh for a return.

Deep freeze and Jagr

After becoming the team of the future last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins are struggling, and it looks like the loss of free agent Marian Hossa is a big reason why.

The defending Eastern Conference champions lost their seventh game in the last eight to Colorado, 5-3, Saturday, and are now in 10th place in the conference.

Now out of Russia comes word that Jaromir Jagr is willing to come home to the team where he became a star.

According to the Associated Press yesterday, Jagr - speaking from Moscow's Red Square prior to the Russian Continental Hockey League All-Star game - said he would come back on the cheap as a favor to Mario Lemieux.

"I would just go there and play for them for the minimum salary," Jagr said. "I owe Mario so much because he taught me how to play hockey. If he would want me to, I would come back for the minimum and try to help him. But he doesn't need me. He has good players there."

Jagr, an eight-time NHL All-Star, scored 646 goals and 1,599 points in 17 seasons and won two Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh.

Snap shots

With his two goals against the Maple Leafs,

Jeff Carter

regained the league lead in goal scoring with 29 . . .

Andrew Alberts

scored his first goal as a Flyer and his first in 164 games. More importantly, Alberts who started slowly after the trade from Boston, has come on in the last 6 weeks and has played good, solid hockey . . . The Flyers are one home win away from nine straight, something they have not done since 2005 . . .

Brendan Shanahan

has agreed to a deal in principle to play for the New Jersey Devils, the team that drafted him in 1987.

Not

signing Shanahan was one of the moves of the year for Holmgren . . . And now there are five. The Montreal Canadiens, thanks to their fans' aggressive voting, have four starters on the Eastern Conference All-Star team, and now coach

Guy Carbonneau

will join Boston's

Claude Julien

on the bench in the Bell Centre, Jan 25.

The assistant job goes to the coach whose team has the second-best winning percentage, and Montreal got that with a 5-4 win over Bruce Boudreau and the Washington Capitals on Saturday night. *

Send email to morane@phillynews.com