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Panthers' Extreme Makeover: Umpteenth Edition

While the National Hockey League takes a break for the Winter Olympics, fans are keeping themselves busy with trade talk, and one of the hottest pieces of gossip involves a cornerstone of the Florida Panthers franchise: goaltender Tomas Vokoun.

During these Olympics, Vokoun's been terrific in net for a surprising Czech Republic team. The rumor reported on ESPN has the Panthers front office sending Vokoun and defenseman Jordan Leopold to Chicago in exchange for Blackhawks' goaltenders Cristobal Huet and Corey Crawford, plus winger Kris Versteeg.

If the Panthers pull the trigger, it amounts to a white flag for a team that started the season on a mission to avoid tying an NHL record for playoff futility.

The NHL Playoffs are relatively easy to make. The top eight teams from both conferences get in. But the Panthers haven't made it since 2000. The league record is ten years between playoff berths.

Currently, the Panthers are six points away from the playoffs. The NHL trade deadline is March 1.

Last season, team management was in a similar situation with another franchise player, defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who was set to become an unrestricted free agent at season's end if he wasn't dealt before the trade deadline. But trading him would have been a setback from that season's playoff bid, so the Panthers kept Bouwmeester.

Only they still missed the playoffs. And with little negotiating leverage, the team ultimately traded Bouwmeester for a bargain, getting Leopold in exchange.

The Panthers stand to get cheated in the deal with the Blackhawks too. But if the team's going to pack it in for this season, then go with a youth movement in the season to follow, there's little point in keeping a 33-year-old Vokoun in net. The team will need to groom a future goaltender, and maybe Crawford can be that guy.

Versteeg could also be an important part of the team's future. The diminutive winger made a bid for NHL's Rookie of the Year honors last year, but he's struggled to get ice time on Chicago's talent-laden bench. He may have the makings of a top-six forward in Florida.

Still, trading Vokoun would be a crushing blow to the psyche of the Panther fan base, which has watched his sparkling performances for the Czech team, and whose previous star goaltender, Robert Luongo, may soon be named the number-one goalie for Team Canada.

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Thomas Francis

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