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Flyers' Hextall not ruling out acquiring a free-agent defenseman

Source: Flyers could be interested in Ryan Whitney. For the time being, prospect Shayne Gostisbehere will play.

SHAYNE Gostisbehere will make his NHL debut tonight, the first step in determining his length of stay in Philadelphia.

A permanent spot on the Flyers' roster is far from guaranteed - though an exceptional start could go a long way in convincing GM Ron Hextall he is ready for the bright lights.

Before deciding on Gostisbehere last night, Hextall spent most of yesterday working the phones to try to acquire a veteran replacement for the injured Braydon Coburn and Andrew MacDonald, both out for about a month.

"I can tell you I'm hoping to get a defenseman for a hell of a lot less than $2 million," Hextall said, revealing the Flyers' salary cap opening.

But with a thin trade market for defensemen, Hextall had few options.

So, Hextall set his sights on the free-agent market. And he might have found a viable option.

According to a source, the Flyers reached out to defenseman Ryan Whitney's camp yesterday to gauge interest.

No deal had been reached yesterday, but one could be brokered soon, depending on how Gostisbehere plays and whether the Flyers can get eyes on Whitney's physical condition.

Whitney, 31, arrived in Sochi, Russia, only yesterday after signing with the KHL's HC Sochi. His deal with HC Sochi is a 1-year deal and he has an "out clause" to return to North America at any point. HC Sochi plays next tomorrow.

A text message delivered to Whitney's cellphone by the Daily News in Russia went unreturned. His agent, Paul Krepelka, neither confirmed nor denied the Flyers' interest.

"Ryan is signed with a KHL team as of now," Krepelka said. "I don't want to comment any further than that - I'll leave that up to Ronnie ."

Even if Gostisbehere is impressive, he is not guaranteed to stay in the NHL. Hextall has preached his "plan and vision," which is driven by young players honing their game in the AHL.

"In a perfect world, you let the kid stay there and play, but we don't live in a perfect world," Hextall said yesterday. "You know, you come up with a plan and vision and sometimes you have to adjust and be flexible. Assuming we don't make anything happen real quick here, we'll call up one guy and get through Saturday and go from there."

Whitney has bounced around a bit as of late. He was waived by the Florida Panthers only seven games into last season and finished the season in AHL San Antonio. He went to training camp with the St. Louis Blues this fall, but failed to earn a contract.

A chronic foot injury, which has included multiple procedures to realign the bones in his foot, has derailed his once-promising career. Whitney netted 59 points in 81 games for the Penguins in 2006-07, which earned him a $24 million deal.

He was still near his peak in 2010, when he helped the United States earn a silver medal at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Whitney followed up the Olympics with 3 injury-filled years in Edmonton before testing the waters in Florida. He went unsigned this summer.

Through it all, Whitney's sense of humor has kept him afloat.

"Four years ago after the Vancouver Olympics, my goal was Sochi 2014," Whitney (@ryanwhitney6) tweeted, after signing with the KHL's HC Sochi. "It's always satisfying when you reach your goals."

Preventable injuries?

If Ron Hextall had it his way, every Flyer would always wear clear, hard-plastic covers over their skates. Braydon Coburn, Andrew MacDonald and Vinny Lecavalier are all now on the shelf with foot injuries as a result of getting hit in the skate by a puck.

Unfortunately for Hextall, teams cannot mandate equipment requirements for players - something that is bargained by the NHL Players Association.

"It's one of my pet peeves," Hextall said. "I think the league and the Players Association should do something there. To demand players to be in the shot lanes all the time and have them out there with somewhat inadequate protection, it's crazy."

Acknowledging that he "can't force guys to wear certain things," coach Craig Berube said the current rash of injuries is "just unlucky, to be honest with you." He'd still like to see his players wearing them.

"I don't think there's any reason not to wear them in practice," Berube said last week. "A game? That's a different story. You don't want guys going out there wearing something they're uncomfortable with or something they have to think about."

Lecavalier, who has been out of the lineup since he got hit with a Mark Streit slap shot, said he tried the protective skate covers yesterday for the first time in his career. He will wear them as long as his foot is vulnerable, probably including games, but wasn't thrilled with the idea.

"It feels different, a little stiffer," Lecavalier explained. "Some guys feel great in them. It's a little heavier . They weigh just a couple ounces, but you definitely feel it."

Lecavalier fractured a bone in his foot in 2001 in similar fashion. Other players have complained about the protective guards changing the angle of their skates on turns, since it could rub against the ice and cause them to lose an edge. Still, players hate missing time worse than an uncomfortable and ugly cover.

"I definitely would like to wear them. We'll see," Lecavalier said. "It's a lot like the visors - I wish I wore it my entire career. I think it's the best rule for young players."