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General manager Bob Clarke has built the ultimate late 1990s
luxury model: big, tough and sleek. So why is his 4X4 equipped
with what amounts to vinyl upholstery when it comes to

Philadelphia squandered its Stanley Cup chance last spring by
entrusting the netminding to the aggressive but
cross-your-fingers duo of Ron Hextall and Garth Snow. Clarke
didn't think he could significantly upgrade the Flyers' talent
in goal at last March's trading deadline without ripping apart
the team, a conservative stance that he will have to rethink
after watching the Red Wings put some long-distance shots past
the erratic Hextall and Snow in the finals sweep. If Philly is
to win the hardware in 1998, it needs dependable goaltending.
Maybe Clarke will land Curtis Joseph, whom the Oilers might deal
because he is eligible to be an unrestricted free agent next
summer. Perhaps Clarke will settle for the Hurricanes' Sean
Burke, who is also a potential unrestricted free agent. But by
taking his sweet time to find a deal that won't cost him a big
talent, like second-year defenseman Janne Niinimaa, Clarke
leaves a cloud hanging over an otherwise sunny situation.

Clarke did make improvements in other areas after the
embarrassing loss to Detroit, starting with a new coach. Wayne
Cashman is a former Bruins star and a 10-year NHL assistant who
deserved a top job years ago. He has a better sense of how to
work the dressing room than his predecessor, Terry Murray.
Murray was a superb tactician who in three seasons brought
discipline and defense to a drifting team, but he struck his
players as aloof and autocratic, and he will be remembered for
playing goalie roulette in the playoffs. Long before his
infamous "choking" remark on the eve of Game 4 against Detroit,
Murray had lost his players--including star center Eric Lindros.
Cashman won't let that happen.

"I see overconfidence as our biggest challenge," the 52-year-old
Cashman says. "Everybody we play is going to measure themselves
against us." To measure yourself against the Flyers, bring a
Paul Bunyan life-sized cutout. Philadelphia was the largest team
in NHL history last season, averaging 6'2" and 207 pounds, and
hasn't shrunk. Cashman wants the Flyers to take better advantage
of the tale of the tape by forechecking more intensely and by
playing with more conviction in front of Hextall, Snow or
whoever ends up tending the goal. The Red Wings frolicked in the
slot against Philadelphia in June, but the signing of 6'4",
210-pound free-agent defenseman Luke Richardson, who can Zamboni
forwards in front of the net, brings added toughness to the back
line. Maybe some of his nasty attitude will rub off on 6'4",
230-pounder Chris Therien, who began playing up to his size late
last season when Murray's constant harangues finally registered.
Philadelphia doesn't have as good a group of defensemen as does
Washington or New Jersey, but the gap is marginal and will
shrink even more as the 22-year-old Niinimaa matures.
Shockingly, he wasn't one of the three finalists for Rookie of
the Year. In three years, tops, he will be vying for the Norris

The most significant newcomer is forward Chris Gratton, who was
obtained from the Lightning for skilled but oft-injured right
wing Mikael Renberg and defenseman Karl Dykhuis, two players
Clarke had been trying to deal for a year. The Legion of Doom
line--Lindros, Renberg and John LeClair--is history, but the
Flyers' reshaped No. 1 line will be bigger and maybe even
better. Philadelphia is loaded in the middle with underrated Rod
Brind'Amour, promising rookie Vaclav Prospal and defensive
specialist Joel Otto, so Gratton, a natural center who, aside
from the Coyotes' Keith Tkachuk, was the NHL's only 30-goal,
200-penalty-minute player last season, might see some Doom time
on a wing. The Flyers can also go with 19-year-old Dainus
Zubrus, who filled in superbly for Renberg.

Of course, Cashman could use a stick boy with LeClair and
Lindros and still count on 100 goals from that line. LeClair,
who had 50 goals last year after scoring 51 the season before,
hasn't needed Lindros's occasional injury-related absences from
the lineup to reinforce his value. Still, the Flyers are
Lindros's team. Ultimately a player of his stature will be
judged not by his statistics but by how many championships he
wins--in five seasons Lindros has come up empty.

Now he enters the final season of his original six-year, $22
million contract, and as of Monday no new deal had been struck,
though negotiations were in full swing. Philadelphia says its
five-year offer would make Lindros the game's highest-paid
player--Colorado's Joe Sakic is tops with a $7 million average
salary--but Lindros is reportedly looking to raise the bar to
about $10 million per annum. Lindros will become a restricted
free agent next summer, which would leave the Flyers vulnerable
to a predatory offer from a rich rival such as the Rangers.

The Lindros contract could be one of the subtexts of the season,
a diversion for a dominant team that should have no difficulty
battling the boredom on the interminable road to the playoffs.
The only variables the Flyers can't control are injuries and the
side effects of the Olympic experience--they could send as many
as 10 players to Nagano. The variable they can control is
goaltending, which will gnaw at them until Clarke makes his


COLOR PHOTO: LOUIS CAPOZZOLA Lindros (88) and the Flyers have set their sights high--nothing less than a Cup will do. [Eric Lindros in game]





1. Ed Jovanovski, Panthers
2. Scott Stevens, Devils
3. Eric Lindros, Flyers


1. Ron Francis, Penguins
2. Joel Otto, Flyers
3. Mark Messier, Canucks