SINCE TAKING over as the Flyers' general manager on Oct. 22, 2006, Paul Holmgren has lured some of the biggest names in hockey to Philadelphia: Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Danny Briere.

With Timonen and Pronger, whom he acquired via trade, it wasn't a tough sell to lock them up to long-term extensions.

For others players, such as Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn, Ville Leino and even Kris Versteeg, Holmgren quietly coveted them before making his calculated moves on the trade market.

Nearly nine times out of 10, when Holmgren has his eyes set on a particular player, he does not come back empty-handed.

But his effort to rebuild the Flyers' farm system, without the use of draft picks - since most were dealt to acquire the aforementioned players - has been a slower and steadier process. The Flyers have not had a first-round pick since 2008, when they took Luca Sbisa and later traded him to Anaheim for Pronger, and they do not have one this year.

That has put a particular onus on the need to restock the AHL talent cupboard with low-risk, high-reward free agents who went undrafted from major junior and college hockey levels.

For the past few months, Holmgren has eyed Stephane Da Costa, a forward who recently led Merrimack College to within one goal of the NCAA Frozen Four and the best season in school history.

Da Costa, whose Merrimack team just bowed out of the tournament on Sunday, has been holed up in agent Wade Arnott's office in Toronto with the Newport Sports Group.

A reported 20 NHL teams scouted Da Costa at some point this year, with approximately 15 teams placing firm offers since Monday. Da Costa, 21, is the latest of the can't-miss prospects leaving the NCAA after only two seasons.

For the second year in a row - Holmgren doted on UMass forward Casey Wellman last season - the Flyers did not get their guy. Holmgren confirmed to the Daily News yesterday that the Flyers are officially out of the running for the Frenchman's services.

According to sources close to the situation, Da Costa and his party met with Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher on Tuesday. Fletcher is the one who nabbed Wellman last year. Sources also indicate that Florida, Ottawa and Boston are still very much in the hunt.

With the Flyers, Da Costa was less interested in money and more interested in how quickly he could crack the roster. Holmgren could not promise anything, as he already has a stacked NHL lineup.

That is what persuaded Wellman to sign with Minnesota on March 16, 2010. He appeared in the Wild's final 16 contests of the season, but hasn't exactly panned out this season, appearing in only 15 games.

For the most part, money is the same for all teams involved in a chase like this one. The collective bargaining agreement states that a player of that age must sign a multiyear, entry-level deal, with a yearly limit of $900,000, the same as those taken in the 2010 entry draft. A bonus structure of up to $2.85 million per season can be negotiated, but the total salary-cap hit of up to $3.75 million per season must be added to the team's salary cap immediately if he is added to the NHL roster.

Truthfully, it might have been hard to squeeze Da Costa under the cap next season with free agents such as Leino still needing to be re-signed.

Then again, undrafted players such as Da Costa, who posted 45 points in 33 games this season and was last season's NCAA Rookie of the Year, do not always pan out in the pro game.

According to College Hockey Inc., 44 players have left college before their senior season to sign with an NHL team. Only five have played the equivalent of a full NHL season (82 games) so far. Pittsburgh's Mark Letestu is about to make it six.

Not surprising, the Flyers have accounted for five of those 44 - Andrew Rowe, Rob Bordson, Michael-Lee Teslak, Kyle Greentree, Erik Gustafsson - and they acquired a sixth, Ryan Dingle, from Anaheim in the Pronger trade. Gustafsson is the only one to see NHL action, appearing in three games for the Flyers this season.

Now, according to a source, the Flyers have turned their attention to Miami (Ohio) University forward Andy Miele, who posted 71 points in his senior season as a Hobey Baker Award candidate.

Timonen update

Paul Holmgren said Kimmo Timonen, who did not play in the third period of Tuesday's win in Pittsburgh because of a lower-body injury, felt "much better" yesterday. He is "probable" for tonight's matchup with Atlanta.

As of yesterday, the Flyers did not recall anyone as a precaution. They would have only five healthy defensemen if Timonen cannot play.

Slap shots

Because of the various tiebreakers in the Eastern Conference, the Flyers' magic number to gain the No. 1 seed is any combination of eight points won by the Flyers or lost by Washington, not seven, as reported yesterday. The magic number of six against Pittsburgh to win the Atlantic Division remains the same . . . Tonight is Bill Barber Banner Night against the Thrashers, who beat the Flyers in a shootout March 17 at Philips Arena . . . The Flyers are 30-7-3-3 against Atlanta since 1999 . . . Atlanta is not officially out of the playoff race, but entered last night nine points behind eighth-place Buffalo, with only six games to play. *

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