TAMPA, Fla. -- The NHL's annual holiday roster freeze lifted at midnight last night, re-opening trading and waivers for the first time in 8 days, as the league makes its feverous push to the trade deadline exactly two months from now on Feb. 27.
As such, the freeze thaws on a Flyers team which is in a much different position than they were in on Dec. 19.
Defensively, Andreas Lilja returned to the lineup after nearly a month layoff with a high ankle sprain and turned in one of his best performances of the season in Dallas last Wednesday. Erik Gustafsson appears healthy enough to return at any time.
Claude Giroux racked up four points in his first game back from a concussion. And Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier are making progress with their own head injuries.
Suddenly, the holes in the Flyers' lineup aren't looking so big.
Still, it will be interesting to keep tabs on a few names that could be potential targets for the Flyers as they try and determine whether or not they will be buying before Feb. 27.
One name that has popped up recently is Carolina's Tim Gleason. There likely isn't a piece on the Hurricanes' roster that general manager Jim Rutherford would not consider moving - and Gleason is included on that list.
Gleason, 28, is interesting for a few reasons. He has played 162 games under the watchful eye of Peter Laviolette in Carolina. He is a steady (and over the last 2 seasons, durable) defender who is not flashy but brings a lunchpail to the rink every night. And Gleason is affordable. He is playing out the last year of a 4-year, $11 million deal, which carries a pro-rated salary cap hit of $2.75 million for the rest of the season.
With Chris Pronger slated to be off the roster for the rest of the season, that would give the Flyers about $4.9 million to spend for a replacement - depending on who is on the active roster at the given time.
In Carolina, Gleason plays a solid No. 3 role behind Joni Pitkanen and Jaroslav Spacek. He plays big minutes (averages 20:31 this season) and is even on a bad Hurricanes team who has given up 28 goals more than they have scored. With the Flyers, Gleason would be the perfect No. 5.
Gleason is the type of player who may not end up being strictly a rental for a playoff run, since he is still young and would likely not require a large raise to stay for following season.
The Flyers have definitely kept an eye on Gleason. They had a scout present in Carolina on Dec. 21 for their game against the Panthers. Carolina plays in Pittsburgh tonight, preceding the Flyers into the Steel City. They could get a glimpse of him first-hand on Jan. 10 in Raleigh.
What kind of timeline are we talking about for a move? The Flyers are clearly in no rush. They are 7-2-1 over their last 10 games in what has been a hellacious month with both travel and injuries. We get the feeling that Paul Holmgren would like to analyze his team further before pulling the trigger on a move.
One player that could make an impact on Holmgren's decision making is Gustafsson. More than anyone else, Gustafsson missed out on a huge opportunity to market himself with Chris Pronger and Lilja out of the lineup when he suffered his own injury. He would have played valuable minutes.
Finally, after 6 weeks, Gustafsson appears primed for a return. He has strengthened his wrist over the last week.
"I feel pretty good," Gustafsson said on Monday. "This was my first real practice, so it was good. I was a little nervous before practice but it felt good doing most things out there. I think I'm pretty close to being 100 percent."
It remains unclear whether Gustafsson would not be able to bump Marc-Andre Bourdon from the lineup.
"Gus is really starting to move up and down on the backend out there, he looks good," Laviolette said. "To get people back from being injured I think brings a good feeling throughout the locker room. We want to be healthy."
Healthy: a novel idea for a hockey team in late December. Offensively, the Flyers have not fielded a fully healthy lineup since Oct. 26. Defensively, Gustafsson and Lilja can help determine whether a player like Gleason will be necessary.
MORE 1-3-1? Tonight, the Flyers return to the St. Pete Times Forum, the site of what some called the "worst hockey game ever played" on Nov. 9, when the Flyers decided to wait out the Lightning's dreaded 1-3-1 trap.
At times, the Flyers sat for minute-long stretches without advancing the puck. That wasn't as much of a problem when the two teams met on Dec. 10 because the Flyers jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the second period, which forced Tampa Bay to press.
"We'll see how the game presents itself and how they play," Laviolette said. "It's not great hockey to watch, but in the end we want to do what's best for our team. We skate, we go, we forecheck. We want to do what we can to make sure we get points."
Laviolette was then asked if he does force his team to sit back and wait out the Lightning again, will he be as hated in Tampa as Jaromir Jagr will be in his return to Pittsburgh.
"Do they not like him there?" Laviolette asked with a smile. "We go there next, so it will be a short-lived hatred if they do."