The most encouraging thing about the Flyers' improbable run to the NHL's final four may turn out to be the effect it didn't have on the team.

It is easy for executives, coaches and players to comfort themselves with the idea that a strong finish naturally means good things for next season. At a postseason news conference yesterday, both John Stevens and Paul Holmgren appeared clear-eyed and realistic about the job ahead of them.

"I think it's encouraging to see the point that we've gotten to," Stevens said. "I think it's also important to realize there's a lot of work to be done to close the gap on the teams that are ahead of us."

Andy Reid, please pick up the white courtesy phone.

Stevens wasn't referring only to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings, the teams that will meet in the Stanley Cup Finals. He also was talking about all the teams that finished ahead of the Flyers in the standings - including five Eastern Conference clubs - as well as any teams that will aggressively look to improve.

The point is, each season is unique. Each team is its own distinct entity. Even if the Flyers could bring every player back for next season - which they can't - the team and the outcome would still be different.

The franchises that contend most consistently are the ones that don't stand pat, especially when they're coming off a good year.

There was no sign from Stevens or Holmgren that the Flyers are fooling themselves, or their fans, by trying to ride the 2008 playoff momentum into next season. They clearly understand that if you stand still, you'll fall behind.

"It would be naive for us to think the teams that didn't make the playoffs, or who got knocked out early, won't be trying to get better," Stevens said. "To be that elite team, that team that has the ability to move on, we've got to continue to get better. . . . There's no time for complacency for us."

Stevens said this would be a "critical summer" for the Flyers, especially their young core players. That's because the young players who emerged in this postseason, from future captain Mike Richards to Scottie Upshall to Braydon Coburn, have to take the same view as the coach and general manager. They can't settle for playing well enough to come close. But it also means that Holmgren has to view the current roster through an unsentimental lens and make some tough decisions.

Veteran defensemen Derian Hatcher and Jason Smith stunned Holmgren with their willingness to play through pain, to put the team ahead of their own health, during the playoffs. But they are also older, slower, and more prone to injury than ever. Smith is likely to leave as a free agent. Hatcher, if he doesn't retire, would be a tough guy to say goodbye to.

But the future of the Flyers' defensive corps belongs to Coburn, Kimmo Timonen, Ryan Parent and Randy Jones. If Holmgren can add a marquee player such as free-agent-to-be Brian Campbell, all the better.

Stevens sounded very high on goaltender Marty Biron based on his playoff performance.

"I don't think there's any question that Marty got to a level of play that he had yet to achieve in his career," Stevens said.

That statement comes with its own implied concern, though. Did Biron play above his head for a couple of playoff rounds? Can he become that goaltender over a long regular season and then stay in that groove through four grueling rounds? That's what it takes to win the Cup.

Biron earned the chance to find out, but goalies are like quarterbacks or baseball closers: You can't be sure about how they'll respond until you see them do it.

Holmgren said he was "certain" the Flyers would re-sign Jeff Carter, who can be a restricted free agent, and sounded confident the team could retain R.J. Umberger under the salary cap as well.

Mix in top prospect Claude Giroux and a returning Simon Gagne and that would improve an already strong group of forwards without Holmgren's having to add anyone from outside.

There is one area where Holmgren can and should be complacent, though: behind the bench.

While it is vital for a team to continually look to improve its roster, there is nothing better than continuity in the coaching staff. Stevens earned a contract extension beyond next season by successfully blending all the new players, weathering injuries, and having the team play its best hockey when it mattered most.

"He's a very good coach," veteran winger Scott Hartnell said after Sunday's season-ending loss in Pittsburgh. "He's a pretty smart guy."

The players think so. After hearing Stevens talk about the need to be aggressive in the off-season, the fans should think so, too.

Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.