Denis Gauthier had not yet gone into his final meeting with John Stevens.

He didn't really know what was going to be said, but he did not expect after 15 minutes to have any real answers about what the Flyers would look like next season, or even if he was going to be back.

Change is coming. After a season like this, there is no question that players will be gone, new players will come in and jobs will be on the line at the start of camp next fall.

No one needs a meeting to know that.

"I'm not naive enough to think that my job is 100 percent safe here," said Gauthier, a defenseman. "Changes are going to be made and not many of us are exempt at all. I've been through tough seasons and I've seen the turnover that goes on.

"Having a 2-year contract doesn't make me the safest guy in the world. They've got plans and hopefully I'm a part of that. They have a plan to go out and get some guys this summer to build around, and hopefully I'm in the good group."

And so it went yesterday morning, the day after the worst season in the Flyers' 40-year history ended. Player after player walked into the coach's office for a brief meeting to talk a little about the season past and the season coming.

The meetings went on through the morning; young players certain to return and some veterans who are certain to be gone. The sessions will resume this morning until everyone has gone before the coach. And when that is accomplished, the job of completing the changes started this season will begin in the office of general manager Paul Holmgren. This is his first offseason as the man in charge of the future, and he has draft picks and free agents to consider and a ton of money to play with.

Holmgren spent much of yesterday in meetings of his own and he also will be meeting with players, especially those on the restricted and unrestricted free agent lists.

The group of unrestricted players is small, and consists of Robert Esche, Mike York, Denis Hamel and Todd Fedoruk.

The restricted group is Scottie Upshall, Lasse Kukkonen, Ryan Potulny, Dimitry Afanasenkov, Ben Eager, Antero Niittymaki, Riley Cote and Joni Pitkanen.

Of the unrestricted group, only Fedoruk has a chance to return. The Flyers will try to sign the majority of the restricted players. There has been speculation that Niittymaki will opt to play in Europe rather than spend the next few years as a backup.

So change is coming and the guy making the decisions will be Holmgren.

"We knew this day was coming for a long time," Holmgren said. "Now that this season is over, I'm extremely excited about what we can do this summer, the draft coming up and [free agency].

"I think there are things we need to do. Whether by trade or free agency, we need to try to get back to being a good team. I just don't think we were a very good team this year for a number of reasons. Having said that, I think we have pieces in place that will make us a good team in the future.

"I don't think we'll make wholesale changes. I think we have a good crop of younger players as well as some veterans that I look to be part of it next year. But I do think we need to make some additions in key areas.

"Having gone through this year and seen what's transpired, I don't think any of us want to go through it again. I think we realize there's some work to be done. With the young prospects that we have, the draft picks, the salary- cap room, we're well-armed for this summer."

One player certain to not return is Esche. But he didn't need an exit meeting to know that. After the trade to acquire Martin Biron and his subsequent contract extension, Esche became the odd man out in a three-goalie situation. From the day that Biron walked into the locker room, Esche never played another game.

Yesterday, Esche was preparing for a trip to Russia to play for Team USA in the World Championships, and a trip to some other hockey city later this summer.

The 29-year-old goalie will be an unrestricted free agent July 1; he's confident he can find a job.

"I don't think anybody is happy with the way [this season] went,'' he said. "We're in the business of competitive hockey and what, we ended up with 22 wins, and that's not enough.''

Esche said he is not bitter and does not think too much about it.

"I learned a lot," he said. "I learned how to be humble, how to be a better teammate, and as tough as it was, there was a big learning lesson and it was something I needed to go through to move forward toward being a starting goalie.

"I have no regrets. I've enjoyed the good with the bad. It's not a situation that I would have liked to be put in, but there are some terrific people in this organization and for 5 years they have been a big part of my life."

Unlike Esche, Mike Richards knows he'll be back. He is one of the young players the Flyers will not part with, a player they hope is going to be part of the center of any success they have next season and in the years to come.

But he also knows there is going to be change.

"I'm not too sure exactly what will happen,'' Richards said. "I've never been through an offseason like this. There could be a lot of things that could happen and there could be nothing that happens.

"We have a good, young team. We have a lot of players that play with a lot of speed and grit. I'm really interested to see what's going to happen."*