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Those Telephone Lines: Dale Tallon, Mike Santos Have Decisions to Make ... Are Panthers More Pretend than Contend?

Gekko BOSTON -- The Panthers go into the All-Star break with the same number of wins as regulation losses with five overtime defeats thrown in for fun.

If one subscribes to the Bill Parcells adage that a team is only as good as its record indicates, well, the Panthers are a pretty average bunch.

Not real good, not real bad.

How ordinary are the Panthers? Not only are they a .500 team in the win-regulation loss category, but they have scored the exact same number of goals (131) as they have given up.

“It's tough to get reflective of where you are at being in the day-to-day grind of it,'' coach Pete DeBoer said. “I like our work ethic, I like the way the guys have bought in. But we've left points on the table. That's the story so far. Since Christmas, we've done better at that. Even when we've lost, we've been able to come away with points and that's the key. At the beginning of the year we went stretches without getting anything out of it.''

General manager Dale Tallon will have to decide soon enough whether the Panthers are going to be sellers or buyers at the trade deadline next month,  although Telephone Wednesday's 2-1 loss to the Bruins likely won't sway Tallon or assistant general manager Mike Santos one way or another.

What happens on the upcoming three-game road trip that starts Tuesday in Toronto could begin to sway the Florida brain trust, however. Time is running out and the Panthers have plenty of ground to make up.

The Panthers have their flaws, no doubt. Florida's top scorers – or the players the Panthers count on to do the bulk of the heavy lifting – are streaky. And they seem to feed off each other. When Stephen Weiss isn't scoring much, neither, it seems, is David Booth, Michael Frolik or Chris Higgins.

Of Florida's 49 games this season, 27 have been decided by a single goal with the Panthers winning 12. They don't get blown out very often (Florida has been in 16 games decided by three goals and has won nine), and on those rare occasions when they haven't shown up in a game this season, the Panthers almost assuredly bounce back the next time out.

It's that type of even-keeled play that has kept the Panthers within sight of a playoff berth. Atlanta goes into the break holding an eight-point lead on Florida but has Carphone played in three more games.

The Panthers, to break into the postseason for the first time since their arena was named after a rental car company, will have to not only hold off teams below them (Florida has a six-point lead on Toronto and seven-point cushion on Ottawa), but catch the Thrashers, Hurricanes and Sabres.

Right now, the Panthers think they can do just that. They play strong defense and have a terrific one-two punch in goal with Tomas Vokoun and Scott Clemmensen. By being in every game, the Panthers have a chance each night.

Is that good enough?

“This team finds a way to consistently stay in games,'' DeBoer said. “We're in the game every night, we just need to make sure we're on the right side of it.''

Had Florida won in Boston on Wednesday, it would have gone into the break on a 5-1-3 run with a chance to have won all but the game in New Jersey last Sunday. By losing to the Bruins, Florida ended up with 11 of a possible 18 points. They should have had more but don't.

And the reality, now, is this: Tallon is not going to sit still. With the trade deadline coming up at the end of February – and scouts from dozens of teams watching each Panthers game from the press box – moves are probably going to be made.
Big moves.

The Panthers have a few unmovable contracts that Tallon will likely deal with in the summer, but for right now, he has players he can move for future concerns like draft picks, prospects and young players who may just need a chance Florida can provide.

If Tallon decides that's the route the Panthers will take, this current roster could be shaken up. The Panthers say they would like to sign Vokoun to a contract extension, although that could be a smokescreen to try and finagle another piece from a team who would be interested in the pending free agent.

Tallon has seen the Panthers lose top players – like Roberto Luongo and Jay Bouwmeester – for little return. He's not going to let a key player like Vokoun (who can veto any trade) walk away July 1 and not get anything in return.

Florida also has more than a few veteran players who could help a contending team. If Tallon decides Florida is more pretender than contender, players like Bryan McCabe, Cory Stillman, Chris Higgins, Radek Dvorak and others may find themselves somewhere else. For the right price, even players like Weiss and Booth could be pried out of South Florida.

But Tallon is patient. He'll give the Panthers a few more weeks to get closer to the playoffs before he does anything. Tallon seems to genuinely like the effort and makeup of the Panthers, yet he knows this roster isn't what he ultimately wants.

“The telephone calls have increased and it's going to get busier,'' Santos said.