WHEN THE Flyers dealt away Peter Forsberg in February, a ripple effect was feared by some. Simon Gagne, who had built a career and fortune through speed and opportunism, surely would be lost without him.

That's what history said, anyway. In the season before Forsberg's arrival, Gagne scored 24 goals and had 21 assists. With the smooth Swede as his center in 2005-06, he scored 47 goals and 32 assists.

There was other minutia as well, like a much higher scoring percentage in games that he played with Forsberg than when he didn't. Suggested if not stated by such stats was this: Gagne, in his seventh season, was all he was ever going to be:

A follower. An opportunist. A sniper.

Gagne scored goal No. 41 in Sunday's season finale, his 12th since the Forsberg trade and his 23rd point overall. Rather than wither and fade, he took the latest loss of a Flyers team captain (see Lindros, Primeau) as a challenge, and in doing so redefined himself to many - including himself.

"It was very hard for me to change my game," Gagne said after Sunday's final game. "I don't want to say that I was not working hard before, but you play with Peter Forsberg and his game is to make plays. He's not going to try to score. And once he was gone I had to find another way.

"What was fun is that I was still feeling good about my game without him. Playing with him was a lot more easy than it is now. But I found a different way and kept finding different ways to score goals and getting points.

"I work for it a little bit more."

Gagne has become a more complete player on the ice, going into scrums along the boards, hacking away at loose pucks near the crease, even muscling his way through traffic at times.

It's the kind of effort you expect to see from your captain, a detail not lost on Gagne, or his teammates. Among the decisions the Flyers will make this offseason will be who wears the "C" on his sweater next season. And although Sunday he said things like, "We'll see what the team is going to decide to do," it is clear, through his constantly improving English, that Gagne hopes he's that guy.

"I'm more ready for it now than 2 years ago," he said.

On Sunday, Mike Knuble - whom some believe should be the next captain - called Gagne, "The No. 1 candidate."

"It comes with the territory," Knuble said. "He's the face of the franchise. The organization made a big commitment to him. I'm sure Peter when he was here was a big name. But when that dog leaves, someone else has to be big dog. And Simon's obviously that guy."

Regardless of what the Flyers do or don't do this summer, Gagne is now, what Knuble calls, "the face of the franchise." There are 4 years left on the 5-year deal he signed last summer. Still only 27, it is reasonable to believe that his force-fed work ethic will result in even further evolvement in seasons to come.

But it's not just about the goals, or the big contract. Homegrown, weaned on the Flyers' way of doing things, Gagne's counsel has been sought by the newcomers and younger players in ways he said never has occurred before. He also has more input in team affairs. He'll never be the speech-giver that Keith Primeau was, he said, but "when it's time to say something and I feel it's the right time to do it, I will do it."

"This is a tough town to be captain and you have to be ready for it," he said. "When you're not ready it can hurt a lot of stuff about your game . . . But I'll take that kind of pressure all the time now. It's something that could be good with your game, too. Put that pressure on you and produce on the ice. This year was a little test for me to do that."

In this season of futility, count it as this team's one, bona fide passing grade. The Flyers still need a slew of good players to compete for the playoffs next season. But it looks like they already have a willing, and able, captain. *

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