<
>

Countdown to the deadline: Panthers

Whereas floundering teams like the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs have accepted their non-playoff fates and positioned themselves as clear sellers in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, this is often a difficult time for clubs that are teetering on the fringe of the playoff picture. One such team is the Florida Panthers, who are just three points out of the last wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. General manager Dale Tallon is in a tough position. Straight sell mode would send the wrong message to a rebuilding club that has overachieved this season and could still earn a postseason berth. But he also has some contracts to shed, which would free up roster space and playing time for some of the team's well-performing prospects in San Antonio. Tallon might make a trade to bolster his team in the weeks ahead, particularly if he can find help on defense, but expect him to move some bodies, as well.

Status: BUYER/SELLER

Available: Ideally, the Panthers would like to acquire a right-handed shot on defense, particularly considering the holes on their back end. Captain Willie Mitchell has been sidelined since the beginning of the month with injury and Dmitry Kulikov faces a four-game suspension after his hit on Tyler Seguin that earned an in-person hearing invite from the NHL's Department of Player Safety. Shoring up the Panthers' blue line remains the team's biggest priority, a source indicated to ESPN.com, but they also have some expiring contracts that Tallon would like to move. One name to keep an eye on? Sean Bergenheim. Though it appears he has fallen out of favor with coach Gerard Gallant, Bergenheim has a hard-nosed, straightforward game that teams covet heading into the playoffs. Bergenheim's agent, Todd Diamond, confirmed to ESPN.com that his client requested a trade prior to his recent stint as a healthy scratch. Bergenheim feels undervalued and wants to play somewhere he can contribute on a nightly basis. Tallon sounds willing to accommodate this request, and Diamond told ESPN.com: "We believe it's just a question of when."

Finances: The Panthers have approximately $2.5 million in cap space remaining, according to NHLNumbers.com, which gives them enough maneuverability to make an acquisition if so desired. That flexibility would increase if they are able to move some players, as well. Bergenheim, Tomas Kopecky, Scottie Upshall and Tomas Fleischmann are also impending unrestricted free agents.

Scouting the GM: Tallon made some significant signings in free agency this summer, bringing in veterans like Mitchell, Shawn Thornton and Dave Bolland, all of whom have Stanley Cup championships on their resumes. Tallon isn't afraid to make a splash via trade, either. His boldest acquisition came last spring, when he traded for goaltender Roberto Luongo -- a move that has paid dividends for a young team in need of some stability between the pipes. With new ownership and a burgeoning young core that includes Aaron Ekblad, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov, as well as prospects like Vincent Trocheck and Rocco Grimaldi, Tallon has to keep the long term in mind.