The Flyers have just one regulation loss in their last 17 games, so it's understandable that coach John Stevens doesn't want to tinker with the lineup.

That's one of the reasons defenseman Randy Jones won't be in Montreal for tonight's game against the slumping Canadiens.

Instead, Jones has been sent to the Phantoms for conditioning. He can play a maximum of three games on a rehabilitation assignment.

Jones has missed the entire season because of hip surgery, but has been given medical clearance to play. Stevens decided not to dress him Tuesday against Colorado.

Stevens said Jones would play last night against Binghamton, "and we'll see where it goes from there."

"I think practice will only take you so far," Stevens said. "Having spent so much time in the American League, I know how good that league is. I think it'll be a great stepping-stone to get him back in the lineup."

The Flyers, who are closing in on the first-place New York Rangers in the Atlantic Division, have won five straight games.

"Our defensemen are playing well, and that would include [Lasse] Kukkonen, who's kind of the odd man out right now," Stevens said after yesterday's optional practice in Voorhees.

"I think we have to give Jonesy the opportunity to be as game-ready as he can be before he comes back and plays," he said.

"The fact we have six healthy guys playing well right now and have the Phantoms right next door, it makes sense to let him go through that progression before he returns to the lineup," Stevens said.

Pressed on the issue, Stevens conceded that Jones could play with the Flyers if the club weren't on a certified roll.

"Every situation is different," he said, adding that if the Flyers "were struggling or the power play wasn't going well, we could maybe put Jonesy in the lineup and play him 11 minutes. If we really needed him, I think we could get him in and manage his minutes.

"But we're afforded the opportunity to let him go down and play in game situations. It's a good situation for him and a good situation for us."

For now, the defensive pairings will remain intact. They are Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen and Ossi Vaananen, and Luca Sbisa and Andrew Alberts.

Kukkonen is the seventh defenseman. He cleared waivers last month, but since 30 days have passed, he would have to clear waivers again if the Flyers tried to send him to the Phantoms.

Kukkonen has played extremely well in the last month and might not pass through waivers this time. General manager Paul Holmgren said he wasn't sure if Kukkonen would be placed on waivers.

"It's just an option that we have at some point, but we have no real plan right now in doing that," Holmgren said.

The Flyers have a logjam of defensemen, and things will get even more crowded when Jones and Ryan Parent return. Parent is recovering from shoulder surgery and could return Dec. 26.

A few weeks from now, the Flyers could have nine healthy defensemen.

"At some point, you have to make decisions somewhere," Holmgren said.

In other words, a trade figures to be in the works.