SUNRISE, Fla. - Losing Derian Hatcher and Jason Smith took a lot of the toughness out of the Flyers' defense, especially in front of the net, but coach John Stevens doesn't think it has left his team soft.

"When you lose Derian Hatcher and Jason Smith, there's two of the gritty, tougher guys in the league, so I think it does have somewhat of an effect," Stevens said. "Hatcher is someone who has the ability to turn the game with his presence, and I don't know if any team can replace a guy like that.

"But at the same time we added [Andrew] Alberts and [Ossi] Vaananen and we have size and mobility. That's closed the gap a little bit, but I don't see us as a soft team, and I don't think the league does, either.

"There have been times this year when we haven't been hard in our own end, but we've all openly admitted those times when we were loose in our own end and I think that's everyone."

The coach said the Flyers have a balanced and talented group of defensemen, and he is looking forward to what they can do. He also said the rule on obstruction prevents teams from playing in front the way they used to.

"Once a guy has possession in front of the net, it's not so easy to move them anymore," Stevens said. "We [stand in front of another player] sometimes when they have possession.

"I do think we're competitive around the net. At the same time, I think it's something that has gotten better and will need to get better in the second half.

"But honestly we like our group right now, we like the way they are built, how they complement each other. We've got some size, mobility and puck movers, and it's a group that we're very happy to move forward with."

Braydon Coburn agrees.

"If we see something where our goalie's being taken advantage of, it would definitely get handled by the group we do have back there," he said. "I think we have guys that bring different things to the table from the guys last year."

Coburn said the plan was to become more of a mobile defense.

"They were big, physical guys and I think that the guys they replaced them with do the job. [Alberts] is a big, physical guy and he's got good mobility, and Matt Carle is more of a puck mover and a playmaker.

"We've got great forwards and we've got to get the puck to them. We've got the guys that can create offense right through our lineup. That's what you want. You want to get the puck in their hands so they can do things."

Briere update

"He's close to skating," John Stevens said yesterday of Danny Briere, who just had another surgery to rectify his ongoing abdominal and groin problems. "He's in a walking program and he's going to be progressed tojogging. He's going to get back on the ice as soon as he possibly can. For me the hardest thing is looking at the frustration for him. I talked to him and it was clear how disappointed and frustrated he was.

"But hopefully, we've found the root of the problem and he can come back with the best part of the season ahead of him." *