RALEIGH, N.C. - Braydon Coburn has heard the whispers for nearly 2 calendar years, but they're growing louder and louder now with the Flyers' glut of defensemen.

The clock is ticking. Ron Hextall's first trade deadline as an NHL general manager is only 5 days away - 3 p.m. Monday - and some of his closest advisers have joined him on the road.

Former general manager and now senior vice president Bob Clarke is traveling with the Flyers for the first time in seemingly years. Hextall's righthand man, scouting director Chris Pryor, is also on the trip.

For Kimmo Timonen to make his season debut on Saturday, the Flyers must shed at least one defenseman on the 23-man roster. Timonen would make No. 9.

That leaves most of the rest of the Flyers' blue line on edge, including Coburn, Nick Grossmann, Luke Schenn, Michael Del Zotto and Carlo Colaiacovo.

Coburn, 29, has the most value on the market - especially since he wouldn't just be a "rental," with 1 more year on his contract at $4.5 million.

"It's just part of the business. I've kind of accepted that," Coburn said yesterday of the possibility of getting moved. "It comes with the territory of being a professional. You kind of know that's part of the job."

Coburn has a limited no-trade clause in his contract. He can supply the Flyers with a list of 10 or 12 teams to which he'd accept a deal, a list that is usually updated in the summer. Coburn's agent, Steve Kotlowitz, declined to comment to the Daily News yesterday when asked whether the Flyers have sought an updated list recently.

Coburn has now played five games since returning from a left foot fracture suffered on Jan. 12. He earned the Flyers' "Colby Cap" for his performance on Sunday, blocking an Alex Ovechkin howitzer in the waning seconds of regulation to seal a win.

He is attractive because he's equipped with all the physical tools to succeed - including size and speed - but his mental approach and confidence wane at times. A change of scenery might rejuvenate him.

"Very good play the last two games," coach Craig Berube said. "Excellent play, going against top lines. He did a great job on Ovechkin. He looks really good to me out there, skating well, making good plays with the puck. Big body. He goes against these top lines against other teams and he does a good job."

Coburn is the Flyers' longest-tenured player (Feb. 24, 2007), and only seven other professional athletes have been in Philadelphia longer. This is his first full season with the Flyers that he'll play fewer than 78 games. He's also averaging nearly two fewer minutes per game than at any point in his Flyers career. Given the way this injured-filled season has gone and the incessant rumors, an amicable split could be in the cards.

"You know, it's been tough, just starting from the first game of the year and getting injured. That's always tough," Coburn said. "It's part of the game, one that I haven't really had to deal with much in my career, thankfully. I'm just hoping to get back on track. I'm feeling a lot better. It makes a big difference when you're feeling healthy out there. I'm trying to get my game back to a spot where I have a lot of confidence."

Mason improving

Steve Mason has not completely ruled out returning to the lineup tomorrow night in Toronto, but that seems like a stretch, considering yesterday marked the first time he freely made saves since undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on Feb. 10.

"I was doing my butterfly [stance] on Saturday, but it was shots from straight on, it was very controlled," Mason said. "I pushed myself as hard as I could [yesterday]. There's obviously some room for improvement with how the knee felt, but also my sharpness. That might even be a bigger hurdle than the knee. We'll see how the rest of the week unfolds."

Mason, 26, had 60 percent of his meniscus removed more than 2 weeks ago. With Ray Emery out thanks to a nagging "lower-body" injury last night, rookie Anthony Stolarz backed up Rob Zepp.

"There's a couple things that the knee stills feels stiff on, like pushing to the post with my skate, when I would be down on my knees already," Mason said. "That would be when there's guys behind the net with the puck when I'm down and trying to push side-to-side. Something like that still needs a little bit of improvement, but we're right on schedule with where we want to be."

Timonen patient

It was only a pregame skate, but with back-to-back games for the Flyers over the weekend and a day off on Monday, yesterday was Kimmo Timonen's first real chance to practice in a while. He joined the Flyers for his first road trip of the season, but already ruled out making his season debut tomorrow night in Toronto.

Saturday night against the Rangers seems like the most likely scenario for Timonen's return from blood clots.

"We'll see how we do this week and how I do in practice, and we'll go from there," Timonen said. "I actually feel like it's going the right way. I just need to feel 100 percent when I go back out there. I don't have an exhibition game to ease myself into it."

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