THE FLYERS are not just playing for their playoff lives.

Some are playing for their lifestyles, their lives as they know it as members of this organization, and this community.

General manager Paul Holmgren made that clear in a phone conversation over the weekend, after the team dropped a 4-1 klunker in Pittsburgh and before rebounding with a 5-1 home victory over the road-challenged Devils.

"There are certain guys on this team that are going to be back here next year," Holmgren said. "And there are certain guys who aren't."

"So if the season ended today, you have a pretty good idea of what you would do?" I asked.

"Most of it, yeah," he said.

Holmgren later spoke of "evaluations" and of being "at the point now where we have to stop making excuses."

Clearly he is not happy with a second straight season in which a team that looked so good on paper in October looks so mediocre on the brink of April. And while this season's team has more palatable excuses than last year's did - the loss of two starting goalies and their top goal scorer - it struggled well before any of that.

It cost John Stevens, a coach popular with his players, his job. It has some in the media, and more on the fan blogs, questioning the leadership of captain Mike Richards. And it has made Richards, once a cordial interview, more guarded and less available than before.

So Holmgren was asked: What about this leadership debate?

"He's done what we've expected him to do in terms of his leadership responsibilities as a young captain," Holmgren said of Richards.

Before proceeding, I should point out that when Richards was made captain two summers ago, I said it was too soon. Not because I didn't like him or didn't see him as a captain, just that it was too much to ask of a young guy still looking to find his potential as an NHL player.

He is an elite version of Michael Peca, who was made captain of the Buffalo Sabres at 23, grew into the role, and was considered a good captain. Peca was never a great or willing quote, which seems to be at the crux of criticism toward Richards. His answers often obfuscate rather than enlighten.

Does that make him less of a leader? I used to think so. I don't anymore.

I thought losing Aaron Rowand would hurt the Phillies and I am still not sure that it didn't at first. But I have been told too many times for it not to be true that Chase Utley is that guy now. And Utley says nothing, at least publicly.

The Phillies used to be looked at as the Flyers are now, which is a talented but underachieving team. It's what got Larry Bowa fired. Utley played for Bowa's last team. But it wasn't his team then.

If you don't like that juxtaposition, try this one: When the Eagles faltered in the middle of the season and were pounded at the end, some said they missed the leadership of Brian Dawkins. Never mind that Stewart Bradley went down over the summer and Ellis Hobbs, too, or that Brian Westbrook was often MIA, or that Jeremiah Trotter's career was revived, at least in part, to fill that leadership void.

A kind assessment of the Flyers is that they are still a young team in transition, plagued with inconsistencies. Is it Richards' fault that Ray Emery got hurt or that Braydon Coburn took one giant step backwards or that the organization couldn't afford to keep Mike Knuble around to act like the cop in the middle of the road? Would the team really be better served if veteran 35-year-old defenseman Chris Pronger wore the "C" and not the 25-year-old Richards?

Pronger assesses the team's effort on most nights, sometimes in harsh language. Before him, Kimmo Timonen, son of a coach, did that. It's never been Richards' strong suit, and the team seems to have enough talkers. We all should remember, too, that when the team made its last spirited playoff run, into the 2008 Eastern Conference Final, the captain was Jason Smith.

He wasn't exactly Keith Primeau. But he played hurt, he never made excuses, and he never called anyone out. Kind of like Richards now.

More relevant is whether Richards, who grew up in the system with several of the better young Flyers, is capable of distancing himself as their captain, is capable of reaming out the room when it's called for.

"I know that he is doing that," Holmgren insisted. "On top of playing his [butt] off when he's on the ice. I've got no bones with Mike's play or what he's doing for this hockey team."

After the one-sided win Sunday over the Devils, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette was asked what message he tried to give to his players following the loss to Pittsburgh.

As if waiting for it, the coach snapped out, "The captain, Mike Richards, gave it.

"And it was a good message," Laviolette went on. "He met with them and he told them to focus on just this game tonight. I thought it was the perfect thing tonight. Not to worry about four points or four wins or five wins or 10 points. That was the message and it was delivered by Mike Richards."

Clearly, Laviolette was sending his own message.

"There's a lot that goes on in the room that you guys don't know about," he said. "He's done a good job. That was just an example."

He will improve as he ages, as did Timonen and Pronger, as did tough-minded survivors like Ian Laperriere. But he will also have to say goodbye to some old friends who might have stayed around here longer if they had watched or listened to him a little more.

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