BY GEORGE RICHARDS
Coach Pete DeBoer says his team needs to go on a big run following the Olympic break if it hopes to get into the playoffs.
His players are echoing that sentiment as well, knowing Florida needs to catch fire right out of the gate.
Yet with the team going into Tuesday's game at Atlanta riding a six game losing streak with losses in seven of its past eight, general manager Randy Sexton needs to be a realist.
The reality is this: The Panthers are not good enough to make that run to the postseason. The future of the franchise needs to be put in front of the needs of the current team – one six points out of eighth place with 21 games remaining.
“It's difficult, but we have to keep the big picture in mind here,'' Sexton said. “We have to think of the long term, not the short term but balance them both.''
On Monday morning, Sexton continued to try and help the future of the Panthers, trading defenseman Jordan Leopold to Pittsburgh for a second round pick in the upcoming draft. It was a good move for Sexton in which he got a nice piece for a pending free agent. But it didn't help the current team as the Panthers lost one of their top defensemen.
Before the break, Florida sent Dominic Moore – one of its top centers – to Montreal for a second round pick in 2011.
“Leo is a terrific player and did a great job for us,'' said Sexton. “From our perspective, we're shifting things around here a little bit. A second round pick is a fair value and a good value. Pittsburgh's delighted to have him. This is just continuing the process we started a few weeks ago.''
If the Panthers want to make the playoffs, they are going to have to play better than they have over the following six weeks.
“We look at the schedule over the last six weeks and we have a lot of games, 11 at home starting with Philadelphia on Wednesday,'' said coach Pete DeBoer. “We have to win some games, make sure we're still in the playoff hunt.''
The Panthers have a game Tuesday before the trade deadline hits at 3 p.m. On Wednesday so a number of players are wondering if they will be next to follow Moore and Leopold out of town for greener pastures.
Florida's players went into the Olympic break with plenty of uncertainty. The team's ownership sent out a letter saying major changes would be made in the coming months, and Sexton feverishly worked the phones trying to cut some deals before the roster freeze that precluded the Olympics.
No player – save for younger players such as Dmitry Kulikov, Michael Frolik and David Booth – appear to be immune from trade talks.
“They haven't let that creep into our preparation,'' said DeBoer. “They have been good about it. A lot of them have been through this before; some of the young guys are just oblivious to it. It hasn't been an issue.''
Stephen Weiss has been with the Panthers since 2002 and, with the team not making the postseason since 2000, has seen these days plenty of times before. The Panthers have made minor moves around deadline day in the past few seasons, usually saving their blockbuster deals for the summer when teams are more willing to give up good pieces because they are not currently in a playoff push.
“Its tight going into the deadline, especially being in the spot we have been in over the past few years,'' Weiss said. “Once the games start and you are on the ice, you are playing with the players out there. It's not an easy time, though. It's stressful for the guys in here.''
Before being traded, Leopold talked about the pressure of possibly being traded – something he has been through before. Leopold started last season with Colorado before being sent to Calgary. A free agent, his negotiating rights were sent to Florida over the summer in exchange for Jay Bouwmeester. Leopold eventually signed a free agent contract with the Panthers – and will be a free agent come July 1 if he doesn't sign an extension with the defending Stanley Cup champs.
In 61 games for Florida this season, Leopold had seven goals and 11 assists.
“Jordan was great to work with and I thanked him for his service here,'' said DeBoer. “He came as advertised: A puck moving defenseman who was a professional across the board. I think he really helped our younger players. I'm sad to see him go.''
-- Injured winger Nathan Horton (leg) skated on the ice before Florida's practice Monday morning with coach Mike Kitchen. He will not play until next week at the earliest.
-- Weiss said the nagging injuries that have been bothering him for the better parts of two months are behind him. “I'm 100 percent,'' he said.
TUESDAY: PANTHERS AT THRASHERS
When: 7 p.m.; Philips Arena, Atlanta
The series: Thrashers lead 32-24-5
The game: The Thrashers may have handed the Panthers their most humbling loss of the season on Feb. 6 when the team spent all day traveling to Atlanta from Washington because of a massive snowstorm yet dominated the Panthers in a 4-2 win. This is the final game of the six-game series between the two. Backup Scott Clemmensen will start in net for the Panthers with Tomas Vokoun expected to start Wednesday against the Flyers – if he isn't traded before then.