WHEN MIKE RICHARDS was named captain of the Flyers last September, I questioned the decision. Not because I don't like Richards and not because I don't think he's a leader. I just thought the Flyers were dropping too much too soon on the then-23-year-old face of the franchise, too much on someone who had just signed that huge, long contract, too much on an unmarried guy still getting used to the glare that comes with being an athletic superstar in a hockey-intense city.

One summer later, Paul Holmgren's trade for 34-year-old Chris Pronger bears this out. Jay Bouwmeester was younger, faster, a seemingly perfect mesh for the Flyers' young core, at least at first glance. But like the recently retired Derian Hatcher, Pronger has captained a Stanley Cup champion, is a poster child for nightly intensity, for playing hurt, for bringing an edge.

At the very least, he will supply support for Richards' captaincy.

"I'm not disagreeing," Holmgren said when I laid this out to him.

It is no secret: The Flyers' general manager was perturbed not just with the Flyers' first-round exit last season, but by the listless way they approached the stretch drive, when home ice was so there for the taking. Think about it: Had the Flyers even won that last regular-season home game against the Rangers, they would have not only had home ice against the Penguins, but owned it in the conference finals if they advanced that far.

Holmgren did not hide his displeasure. After a 3-2 loss to lowly Toronto on April 1, in what to me is a watershed event, he lashed out at the softness of his slumping team, saying it "didn't play hard enough to come close to competing for the two points on the line."

And while Scott Hartnell publicly concurred, ripping into his team's attitude and saying, "We were soft," the captain approached it this way:

"It's still only one game," Richards said. "[We're] not pushing the panic button or anything."

The Flyers had just lost for the third time in four games. Over the final six games, all against opponents with lesser point totals, they won three and lost three, losing first-round home ice in a final home-game loss against the Rangers.

Richards played hurt down the stretch and during the Flyers' six-game, first-round loss to Pittsburgh. He led by example, and both Holmgren and coach John Stevens say he is the recognized leader of "the room." Stevens often points out that Richards has won championships at every level he has played, often in the role of captain.

But clearly, no button was ever pushed, then or in the postseason. Richards is still just 24. There's no getting around that, no getting around the perspective that age brings in this league.

Richards will be a great captain. Pronger, a captain for seven seasons in St. Louis, and for one in Anaheim, should accelerate his growth in that regard. Clearly, it's a big reason that Holmgren went after age - and edge - over Bouwmeester's youth and tools.

"He's a terrific young player with great skills and great speed," Holmgren said of Bouwmeester, whose rights were traded to Calgary. "But I don't know if I'd put him in the same category as Pronger in terms of physicality. Chris is a strong, physical defenseman. His presence, his leadership - it's a great fit for our team."

When Hatcher appeared on Comcast SportsNet's "Daily News Live" to discuss his next career recently, I asked him what bothered him most about watching the Flyers last season. He said it was that the defense did not protect the front of the net, did not "hold" it.

Some of that can be traced to rule changes. But some of that is an attitude, as Hatcher proved playing on one leg the previous season. Pronger is 6-6, 214, with a mean streak that has been refined over the years but not eliminated. In March 2008, he was suspended eight games for stomping on the leg of Vancouver's Ryan Kesler.

Last season, Pronger cut his penalty minutes down by 40, to 88. He also logged a ton of time, played all 82 games, has seemed to become more durable as he has aged. Calling him "one of those special guys," Holmgren said, "He's going to play for a long, long time.

"The thing I really like about him is that he knows what it takes to win. He's been there, done that. In that respect there's no comparison to Jay."

It's also what separates him from the Flyers' current captain. Right now. Holmgren's bet - one that cost him Luca Sbisa - is that Pronger's presence will push a few buttons next season and hopefully the ones after that, activating a gear that clearly was missing last season. *

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