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Flyers upgrade front line with versatile Sam Gagner

In conservative free agency, Flyers work strategically to maximize options under salary cap.

AFTER THE FLYERS cleared cap space in a trade with Arizona last weekend, adding Sam Gagner to the mix, the general question around Flyerland was: What forward comes next?

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said that upgrading the skill level up front was crucial for the team's offseason.

And after two days of free agency, Gagner might be that upgrade after all. He also might be the only player the Flyers add to their first three lines this summer, barring any trades.

"He is a very skilled forward,'' Hextall said of Gagner. "I think in the right situation he can be a very productive player for us. He is that player that we were going to try and seek, whether it be through a trade or free agency or whatnot. We felt like he was a good fit. We did our homework, we did our research and everything came out good.''

So the question now is: Has the team improved much in the offseason?

As of yet, there hasn't been much roster turnover, which Hextall indicated was likely given the team's salary-cap issues.

Gagner, backup goalie Michal Neuvirth and Russian defenseman Evgeni Medvedev have been the only additions to the Flyers' NHL roster. So they certainly didn't get worse. Just how much better, though, remains to be seen.

Gagner, who turns 26 in August, was a highly touted prospect when he first joined the league in Edmonton in 2007. He's never scored more than 18 goals in a season and his highest point total peaked at 49 when he was a rookie. His 41 points for Arizona last year, however, topped all but five players in the Flyers' lineup.

Even so, when he was acquired, speculation surfaced that the Flyers would buy out Gagner and his remaining one-year, $3.2 million contract to free up cap space to go after a different forward.

"Quite frankly, I'm not sure where that came from," Hextall said of the speculation. "I knew that was an option. But quite frankly, we didn't think too much about that. Again, it's a skill level that he brings. And we felt like we had to add to the skill level of our top 9 [forwards]. Given the price and the space that we cleared out, we think he's a good fit.

"I can tell you I've talked to Sam three or four times now through the process. He's extremely excited to be here. He really wants to prove himself. He's hungry right now and he's going to play the game the right way for us.''

Hextall said coach Dave Hakstol will decide which forward position Gagner plays. He played all three last season in Arizona. He's capable of centering the team's second line with Wayne Simmonds at his wing, but Hextall said it's possible Brayden Schenn could move to center.

So the addition of Gagner makes the Flyers a bit better up front, adding to the skill level of the second and third line. And adding Medvedev only helps depth on the blue line. Beyond there, the Flyers' rebuild will be from who's currently on the roster. Hextall couldn't fix all the Flyers' cap and roster issues in one offseason.

In the rebuilding process, Hextall doesn't prioritize free agency and trading. Speaking before the draft, he said he'd rather build through the draft, using free agency merely as a "tool" and "hole-filler." The Flyers had, by all accounts, a great draft; Wednesday they followed it by filling one of those holes, adding free agent Neuvirth to back up Steve Mason.

And then . . . crickets.

"Quite frankly I hope most years are like this year where you're looking for one piece or two pieces," Hextall said. "I don't like going into free agency needing three or four bodies and you end up kind of blowing your brains out there. We feel like we got a real good fit for our team.''

Help on the farm

After adding three players to two-way contracts Wednesday night, aiding in organizational depth, the Flyers signed veteran goalie Jason LaBarbera yesterday evening to a one-year, two-way deal. The 35-year-old spent most of last season with the Norfolk Admirals, Anaheim's AHL affiliate, where he posted a 2.62 goals against average in 34 games. He also appeared in five games for the Ducks.

LaBarbera's addition will help develop prospect Anthony Stolarz, whom the Flyers drafted in the second round (45th overall) of the 2012 draft.

Prospect watch

The Flyers announced yesterday the schedule and roster for their 2015 prospect development camp next week at the Skate Zone in Voorhees. The camp begins Tuesday and runs through Sunday. The annual "Trial on the Isle" competition will take place in Stone Harbor on Wednesday.

Seven of the team's nine draft picks will be camp attendees, including first-rounders Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny. Other top prospects at camp will include center Scott Laughton and the future defensive corps of Shayne Gostisbehere, Travis Sanheim, Sam Morin and Robert Hagg. There will be 33 players in attendance.

The camp is free and open to the public. It will close with a 3-on-3 tournament Sunday, July 12. For a complete schedule of Development Camp events, visit the Flyers website.