Florida Panthers and Prodigy Jay Bouwmeester Toil in Obscurity

That's South Florida sports for you.

"He was a phenomenal, phenomenal skater," Carriere recalls. "To see him at 16 come flying out of the zone with the puck, drive the net, and score, you knew he was special. When he was 15, he could have played in the [National Hockey] League."

Carriere's Medicine Hat team was young, however, and even with Bouwmeester in the lineup, the Tigers finished in last place. That hardly mattered to fans. "We played in front of a packed house every night in Medicine Hat," Carriere says. The arena seats 4,000, and a sellout is no small feat considering there are less than 60,000 residents in the town, which is isolated in Alberta's southeast corner.

If that wasn't enough buzz over Bouwmeester, in 2000 he was selected to play for Canada's under-18 national team. At age 16, he was the youngest player ever to be chosen for that team. Soon he was earning comparisons to hall of famers such as Larry Robinson and Paul Coffey.

Bouwmeester just wants to forget about a 6-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild.
C. Stiles
Bouwmeester just wants to forget about a 6-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild.
Rookie Panthers coach Peter DeBoer knows that winning fans in South Florida won't be easy.
C. Stiles
Rookie Panthers coach Peter DeBoer knows that winning fans in South Florida won't be easy.

In that company, even a kid from Edmonton might develop an ego. Instead, young Bouwmeester seemed embarrassed. He was polite but withdrawn. "Kind of like Gary Cooper," chuckles Jim Matheson, a Hockey Hall of Fame sportswriter who covered Bouwmeester for the Edmonton Journal. "It's tough get him to say more than a few words."

By spring 2002, NHL Central Scouting named Bouwmeester the world's best pro prospect, citing his six-foot-four-inch frame, his booming slap shot, and his knack for always being in the right place on the ice. But the most dazzling endorsement came from the legendary Bobby Orr, who predicted Bouwmeester would someday reach best-in-the-business status.

The defenseman could hardly find a hockey market that offered more anonymity than South Florida, where the Panthers ranked in the league's bottom five in attendance.

Heading into the 2002 draft, the Panthers hadn't won a playoff game in five years. The team hadn't fielded a star defenseman since trading Ed Jovanovski in 1999. Bouwmeester looked like the missing piece of a team stocked with talented young forwards and a franchise goalie, Roberto Luongo.

Rick Dudley, then the Panthers' GM, made the call to draft Bouwmeester. "Jay's range backwards and his skating forward are in the stratosphere — dimensional," Dudley says. "His ability to go from one side of the ice to the other is unmatched." While scouts sometimes watch a player for hours to see a flash of greatness, with Bouwmeester, Dudley says, "It took five minutes to see he had it."

By October 2002, shortly after his 19th birthday, Bouwmeester signed a contract worth more than $1 million a year. Now all he had to do was make good on those lofty expectations and he'd help turn this Panthers franchise into a winner again.

Pop the name "Bouwmeester" into YouTube, and the first two videos describe two different players. The first one, from a November 2005 game, shows the defender delivering a hard check to Pittsburgh's Maxime Talbot. The Penguins center takes umbrage at the hit and taunts Bouwmeester, who drops his gloves on the spot. The smaller Talbot somehow lands a few more punches. Now in his fifth NHL season, Bouwmeester has seen only that one fight in his career. He didn't win the scrap, but at least he didn't embarrass himself.

The same cannot be said of the second video. It shows a hit by Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Denis Gauthier that sends Bouwmeester tumbling head-over-heels into the Flyer bench.

According to the moral relativity that applies to the NHL, Bouwmeester would have been expected to stand up and coldcock the nearest Flyer. Failing that, it would be appropriate for him to hunt down Gauthier on the next shift and invite him to a slugging match. Surely, Gauthier, who could fill a library with his own scrap videos, would have been game.

Bouwmeester did neither.

The gushy scouting reports that followed Bouwmeester into the NHL contained so many positive attributes, covering every aspect of the game. There seemed to be nothing negative to say. So it might have appeared an afterthought, purely for the sake of balance, that scouts listed two trifles: Bouwmeester had not played on a winning junior team, and the young man had shown no penchant for intimidation. He wasn't mean, and he could stand to be more physical.

Though even the top picks in the NHL Draft often begin their professional careers in the minors, Bouwmeester played all 82 games of his rookie season. But that year, as well as his second, he didn't quite look the part of a scoring defenseman, collecting only six goals.

After a labor dispute canceled the 2004-05 season, league officials worried about fan support. They drafted rule changes that favored athletic skaters and led to more goals. A less physical, more refined game favored the sport's pure athletes, such as Bouwmeester. He stepped into the opposing team's offensive zone with more frequency, assisting on 41 goals. The following year, at age 23, Bouwmeester became a goal-scoring threat, notching a dozen. Last season he scored a career-high 15.

Even with the increase in scoring, the statistic that defensemen prize most is plus/minus. That is, the ratio between goals one's team scores while he's on the ice, and how many are given up. It can be a misleading stat for players such as Bouwmeester, who has had so few All-Star teammates. But it's still a measure of his development that his ratio improved every year from -29 as a rookie to +23 in his fourth season. (Bouwmeester now has a career average of -28.)

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