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Our Plan A for Flyers: Get Backes, promote Provorov

OK, Flyers, you raised your fans' hopes with a rather unexpected visit to the playoffs, so what are you going to do now for an encore?

When the Philadelphia hockey outfit convenes in September for Year 3 of the "Hextall Patient Rebuilding Project,'' all eyes will be on who's coming, who's going and who's already left the building.

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We say with just a few moves, the Flyers can make themselves an even more legitimate contender without sacrificing the long-term goal of constructing a championship team.

One of those suggested actions might be rather obvious, another maybe not so much.

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Just about everyone believes that 19-year-old Russian defense prospect Ivan Provorov will be ready for the NHL this coming season.

He lit up the World Junior Championships last winter and has continued his strong play in the Western Hockey League playoffs, totaling 10 points in 16 games for the Brandon Wheat Kings, who will meet the Seattle Thunderbirds in the WHL finals.

Imagine a pairing of Provorov and Calder Trophy finalist Shayne Gostisbehere next season. It could become the best young defense tandem in Flyers' history.

Now for the transaction which could help the Flyers immensely: Going after free-agent center David Backes of the St. Louis Blues.

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Admittedly, this is a long shot for a couple reasons.

Backes, who's finishing up a contract that pays him $4.5 million annually, is enjoying a spectacular Stanley Cup playoff performance.

Even if the Blues don't win the Cup, the 32-year-old captain figures to command a salary of $6 million or more per year on his next deal.

Which brings us to reason No. 2: The Flyers finally might have some cash to throw around next season but probably not enough for someone with that kind of price tag.

That's a shame because Backes is just the type of player the Flyers need.

He's a great veteran leader, something the Flyers have lacked a bit since the departure of Kimmo Timonen two seasons back. There just aren't any Chris Prongers or Mike Knubles in that locker room at the moment.

Plus, Backes would look good at second-line center behind Claude Giroux. That way, Sean Couturier could be moved back to third-line pivot which seems like a much more natural spot for his exquisite checking skills.

There's a chance Backes would re-sign with the Blues if they were to win the championship, providing the money was right.

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If Flyers GM Ron Hextall has any designs on Backes (or any other premium scorer on the potential free-agent market), he isn't tipping his hand.

He can't do anything, anyway, until the green flag is waved for the official start of free agency on July 1.

"We'll try everything,'' Hextall said when the season ended. "We'll certainly look at the free agent market and if something makes sense we'll look at the trade market and if something makes sense we'll do it. But I can't seem to find right now what's going to come about because I truly don't know who's available July 1st."

But he does know the 214 goals the Flyers scored last season probably won't cut it a second time around.

"We need some upgrade up front,'' Hextall admitted. "We need some goal scoring/playmaking, (that) would be our number one need."

If Hextall can't land Backes, the only other top free agent who fits that bill might be the Islanders' Kyle Okposo, a sniper who has blossomed into a steady 20-25 goal guy.

Problem is, Islanders GM Garth Snow likes him, too, and that's where Okposo could end up.

As for Provorov (who has another year of junior eligibility left), even though he has the look of a future all-star right now, Hextall is known for not rushing people into the NHL fray.

Case in point: The 22-year-old (at the time) Gostisbehere spent 18 games in the minors with the Phantoms before he was called up in November. Some believe the little extra seasoning in Allentown paid some benefits.

It all goes back to that "patient'' approach.

"We're not going to change philosophically in terms of young players,'' Hextall insisted. "They have to come in and be better than someone else that's here and if that happens we proved last year that we'll make room in our roster for a young player that proves to us that he's ready to play at this level and make our team better.

"I'm not putting a player on the team so we can say we're a young team. They're going to come in here and earn a spot."

Provorov's presence (he either makes the Flyers or goes back to junior) should make for an interesting training camp. You have Michael Del Zotto returning from wrist surgery, so that amounts to possibly two players pushing their way onto the roster that finished up with a Game 6 loss to Washington in the playoffs last month.

So let's start with the back line in sizing up next year's team:

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/n + **Defense:** Veterans Mark Streit, Nick Schultz, Michael Del Zotto and Andrew MacDonald are all signed for next season. Radko Gudas and Brandon Manning are restricted free agents and will be back. And then there's Gostisbehere.

The question is, who are the odd men out?

Obviously, the Flyers should not bring back 33-year-old Russian Evgeny Medvedev, who played in only 45 games and didn't help his cause by getting busted on a DUI charge in Montgomery County after the season ended. His $3 million comes off the books.

MacDonald ($5 million) virtually can't be traded and could be headed back to the Phantoms.

Del Zotto was playing well at the time of the injury and should have a spot on the roster waiting for him.

Can the Flyers possibly unload Streit ($5.25M) or Schultz ($2.25)? Streit's exit would be the bigger windfall toward signing an outside free agent but Schultz could also be expendable.

The choice here would be to move Streit without taking back a similar aging player. Instead, Hextall probably would look to make a deal involving conditional draft picks, much like he did when he sent Timonen to the Blackhawks two seasons back. Likewise, Schultz, although he's still a role model player in the eyes of both his GM and coach.

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/n + Offense:** It's a given that the Flyers will buy out the last year of R.J. Umberger's contract. No one will ever know how much a hip injury (which resulted in surgery) led to his downfall. But the Flyers can gain $3 million by throwing in the towel.

The case of Sam Gagner ($3.25M) is interesting. He played well in spurts but working against the unrestricted free agent is a lack of size, plus a big salary number. Another player who probably won't be back.

Ditto Matt Read, who's still owed a total of $7.5M over the next two seasons. He's lost a step, doesn't win puck battles, etc. His production has sagged the last two years. Find a way to move him.

Restricted free agent Nick Cousins figures to be re-signed because he won't be making in excess of $1M. But Hextall gave him no guarantees he makes the roster.

All of these possible openings could pave the way for the arrival of hot shot rookie Travis Konecny.

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The Sarnia speedster has the tools to play in the NHL, now it's just a matter of whether he can play on both sides of the puck.

Hextall might have a tough decision to make. Like Provorov, for 19-year-old Konecny, it's either another year of junior or the NHL. Some scouts would say he's already learned all there is to know in junior.

"I think there's less danger there (in junior) than sticking him on your team,'' Hextall said. "So is there a danger? Yes, there is. Is there the danger of a player being too good or growing beyond that level? Yeah, but not near as great of a danger as putting him on the big team.''

Mainstays such as Giroux, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and Michael Raffl figure to continue to have major roles.

What Hextall has to concern himself with is a so-so fourth line of Ryan White (a UFA), Chris VandeVelde and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, plus Scott Laughton.

Will he try to upgrade this bunch? He should.

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/n **Goaltending:** Some believe Michal Neuvirth's better-than-expected season (especially the last three games of the Washington series) have made Steve Mason expendable.

But Neuvirth has never proven he can stay healthy for an entire season so starting the year with two goalies makes sense. Both netminders are signed for one more year. If Mason gets off to a slow start and if Neuvirth shows he can stay healthy, it might be time for Mason to move on.

But those are a couple of big "ifs.''

"To have inner competition is a good thing,'' Hextall said, "so we get two good goalies and I think as we saw this year, it's nice to have. If we have one of them this year, then we're probably nowhere near the playoffs. They were a strength of ours and I give them both credit for giving us a chance to win."

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