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Flyers send Luca Sbisa back to juniors

The Flyers assigned popular rookie defenseman Luca Sbisa to junior hockey yesterday after mulling the move for several weeks.

The Flyers assigned popular rookie defenseman Luca Sbisa to junior hockey yesterday after mulling the move for several weeks.

Sbisa, who turned 19 on Friday, was sent to Lethbridge of the Western Hockey League. He can be recalled when Lethbridge's season is over - or sooner if an emergency (read: injury) arises, and the league grants permission.

"We feel it is in the best interest of Luca and the Flyers' organization that he gets back to playing on a regular basis," general manager Paul Holmgren said.

The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Sbisa, showing poise beyond his years, beat astronomical odds and made the Flyers after an impressive training camp. He started strongly, notching seven assists in his first 21 games and giving the Flyers a puck mover who also supplied a physical presence on the blue line.

When Randy Jones returned from an injury Dec. 21, Sbisa's playing time decreased, and he was less effective while being used sporadically. Sbisa, who failed to score in his last 18 games, sat out six straight contests before playing in Saturday's 4-0 loss to lowly St. Louis.

Sbisa was on the ice for two Blues goals and finished with a minus-two for the night. All told, he was minus-six in 39 games and registered seven assists and 36 penalty minutes while failing to score a goal.

Sbisa was pained to leave the team, though he realized the decision was a clear possibility.

"Obviously, I am disappointed," he said. "I kind of had a feeling it may happen. I did not play for a long time, so you start to think that something might be up. . . . But now I know where I am going to play. It's just another step to playing in the NHL. I am going back to Lethbridge and help the team out."

Sbisa, the Flyers' No. 1 pick (19th overall) in the 2008 draft, said he was "looking forward to playing a lot of minutes, playing the power play, [penalty kill] and the last minutes of a game. I kind of missed that stuff."

The fourth-youngest player and second-youngest defenseman (18 years, 255 days) in franchise history when he played in the Flyers' opener, Sbisa will join Lethbridge for its game in Portland, Ore., tomorrow.

Playing for Lethbridge last season, Sbisa recorded six goals, 27 assists and 63 penalty minutes in 62 games. He was named the Hurricanes' top rookie, and he led WHL defensemen in playoff scoring with 15 points as Lethbridge advanced to the WHL finals.

Sbisa sat out 10 of the Flyers' last 18 games.

"I tried to get back into the lineup, but we have a very good team here," Sbisa said. "I just didn't play much. But it was a great, great time and a great experience . . . and the locker room was filled with great guys here. I never had expected to play at 18 years old in the NHL."

Sbisa, who grew up in Switzerland, made history when he played against the Rangers on Oct. 11, becoming the first Italian-born defenseman to reach the NHL.

Breakaways. The Flyers' power play, among the NHL's best all season, is 1 for 23 (4.3 percent) in its last four games. During than span, opponents are 4 for 27 on the power play. . . . The Flyers, who are just 7-6-2 since their Christmas break, had their second consecutive day off yesterday. They will host the East-leading Bruins tomorrow in a home-and-home series that resumes Saturday afternoon in Boston.

The Flyers hope defensemen Braydon Coburn and Jones return to the lineup tomorrow after missing Saturday's loss in St. Louis because of the flu. . . . A limited number of tickets remain for tomorrow's game.