THE SPECULATION hasn't gotten out of hand yet, but give it a few days and the NHL trade-deadline buzz will kick into full swing as March 4 approaches and hockey GMs turn their "informal" talks into serious offers.

There are some big names at the top of the trade lists, and the first is Jay Bouwmeester, 25, the big, talented Florida defenseman who becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1.

He will be the target of almost any general manager who thinks Bouwmeester can help his team, and Flyers GM Paul Holmgren is one of them.

The Flyers have expressed interest in Bouwmeester, according to several sources, but the level of interest has to be weighed against a team's needs and what can and can't be done in a trade.

There was a time when the Flyers were able to go after a guy and get him, no matter what it took. The salary cap changes that, and what they want to do and what they can do are very different things.

The Panthers have told all callers that they won't take salary back in a trade, that they want picks and prospects.

That's a bit of a quandary with a guy who is going be seeking a big contract come July. His current $4.875 million contract also would be a problem for the Flyers right now, as they are already struggling with how to bring Danny Briere back and get under the salary cap.

If Florida refuses to take salary back, the Flyers are out of the mix. If they will take salary back, they will also want picks and a prospect. Scottie Upshall's name has come up in the rumor mill. So has Joffrey Lupul's. Upshall is a restricted free agent at the end of the season and Lupul goes to $4.25 million for the next 4 years.

You do the math.

But do the Flyers really need Bouwmeester? I don't think so. First, the Flyers have collected an interesting group of young and developing players along with emerging and established veterans. Ryan Parent is already playing huge minutes with Kimmo Timonen. Matt Carle can skate and move the puck and will get better, and Luca Sbisa, the rookie Swiss kid now back in juniors, is going to be a stud and will be back next year.

Randy Jones contributes offensively, Andrew Alberts is improving and Braydon Coburn, while not having quite the same year as last, is a keeper, period. He can skate, has a long reach, and makes one of the best first passes in the league. Ossi Vaananen and Lasse Kukkonen are both good depth players and will be available if the annual defenseman-injury plague occurs.

The problem with the Flyers' defense is no one hits. Sure they check, they shut down offenses and can separate players from pucks. But there is not a guy among them who hits, really hits, and makes the front of the Flyers' net a dangerous place to hang out.

I'm not sure Bouwmeester is that guy, or if that guy actually exists in the league anymore. There is also the fact that Bouwmeester has never been in a playoff game.

Would he be an upgrade for the Flyers? No question. But he is not absolutely necessary.

I really like the Flyers' defense and think the direction they are going will push them farther into the ranks of the league's elite teams.

Some of the other trade buzz has involved the goalies. Neither Marty Biron nor Antero Niittymaki has a contract extending beyond this season and the Flyers will have to sign a goalie.

For that, they will need money, and getting tied up with what it would take to sign Bouwmeester would make that very difficult.

There also has been speculation that the Flyers are not satisfied with Biron, and would trade top prospect James van Riemsdyk for the Thrashers' Kari Lehtonen.

I have not been able to find anyone who backs that rumor or the idea that the Flyers asked Biron to waive his no-trade clause. Biron flat-out denied that last week and said he has no interest in going to another team. Sources said last week that the Flyers' brass has not talked to Biron.

Are they happy with him? They are not thrilled. He's inconsistent. Are they unhappy? Not really, but they would feel a lot better if he got hot like he did at the end of last year.

Would they sign him again? Who knows? This is an area the Flyers will examine closely, but not until the season is over.

Snap shots

When Danny Briere returns to the lineup this week, someone will have to go to make cap space. Claude Giroux won't be the guy, but Darrell Powe is likely. As much as the Flyers like what he brings to the ice, he's still young and they are not worried about him.

Also returning soon is Josh Gratton, who is recovering from the same abdominal surgery Briere had. With the cap situation and with the playoffs on the horizon, it's doubtful Gratton will stay up.

Jon Kalinski has been skating and trying to recover from the leg contusion that required his leg be opened from just above the knee to around his hip.

Looking at the scar he now carries, it's amazing that he is skating at all.

The captain is back

Mike Richards may have been quiet for a stretch just before and after the All-Star break, but he has been unbelievable lately. He had three points Saturday in the loss to Pittsburgh and five in the win against Buffalo for a total of 201 career points. He also tied Mark Howe and Brian Propp for a franchise record with his seventh shorthanded goal Saturday. It was the 19th shorthanded goal of his career; he has scored one each in the past three games. *

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