Florida Panthers and Prodigy Jay Bouwmeester Toil in Obscurity

That's South Florida sports for you.

Those were solid numbers, but the 18-year-old Bouwmeester was right to feel the weight of the comparisons made between him and the league's best defensemen in history. When Larry Robinson was that age, he had a +120 rating. Bobby Orr managed a +124.

"I'm one of the people of who looks at Jay Bouwmeester and wonders when the star will emerge," says Ken Campbell, a columnist for the Hockey News. "You watch him skate and you can see his size, but after a game, sometimes you wonder whether he even played."

That tendency to fade into the scenery is the reason Campbell ranks Bouwmeester as one of the league's top 20 defensemen. His raw ability would put him in the top five, Campbell says, but "he doesn't have that intensity, the mean streak. He doesn't play a physically demanding, punishing game. It's not in his makeup. And it will continue to keep him from being an elite defenseman in the league."

Joe Rimkus Jr./Miami Herald/MCT/Newscom

Lacking that quality, Bouwmeester essentially invites opposing players to be bolder about standing in front of the Panthers net, where they can deflect a teammate's shot for a goal. Or they're obliged to bully smaller Panthers players, daring Bouwmeester to come to his teammates' aid.

Campbell isn't even convinced that Bouwmeester makes his teammates better, pointing to the losing records that followed him from junior hockey in Medicine Hat into the NHL with the Panthers.

Dan Bouwmeester has been hearing critics talk about his son's lack of toughness for years. It still quickens his temper. "Anybody who says he's not tough is out to lunch," he snaps. He cites a game last season when his son roughed up Montreal Canadiens wing Alexei Kovalev in retaliation for a hit on Panther center Nathan Horton.

But that kind of rough play is a rarity for Bouwmeester. Last year, no defenseman in hockey played more minutes than he did, partly because he stayed out of the penalty box.

The Panthers take at least some of the blame for Bouwmeester's inability to meet his potential. The front office has been unable to develop a star forward, despite seven top 10 draft picks in the past 10 years. The Panthers blundered mightily in trading away star goalie Roberto Luongo. They've also gone through coaches at a rate that would make George Steinbrenner blush.

After Bouwmeester was drafted, the legendary Mike Keenan coached him. The next year, Keenan was fired and replaced by Dudley, who gave way to John Torchetti in 2004. When Keenan returned as GM, he brought in yet another new coach, Jacques Martin, who was soon replaced by Peter DeBoer, who had no experience leading a pro team. He is Bouwmeester's fifth coach in five pro seasons.

"It's fair to say that the Panthers are one of the worst-run franchises in the NHL, and it shows in their record," says Scott Burnside, hockey analyst for ESPN.com. "What would Jay Bouwmeester be like if he'd have gone to a team with more stability in coaching and general management?"

To Dan Bouwmeester, that's a tantalizing question. "[South Florida] shouldn't even be in the NHL," he says. "It's not a hockey town. Why is it even down there?"

The Panthers training facility sits on a scorched tract of land just east of the Sawgrass Expressway, off Sample Road in Coral Springs. The 40-degree temperature disparity between outside and the interior keeps the automatic glass doors fogged. The chilly air, combined with the sight of so many Anglo faces with Canadian and European voices, makes Dan Bouwmeester's question particularly poignant: Why is a hockey team down here?

Ostensibly, the players are emissaries of their imported sport. The Panthers were created 15 years ago thanks to the league's interest in popularizing the NHL in a big media market that otherwise had little reason to follow hockey.

The original team owner was Waste Management and Blockbuster Video magnate H. Wayne Huizenga, who must have soured on his investment as the team struggled to find fans in the late Nineties. In 2001, he sold the franchise to an investment group led by Alan Cohen, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur, for $101 million. A study by Forbes Magazine last year estimated the team's value at $151 million. But partly owing to low ticket sales, the Panthers were one of the few teams that operated at a loss. Forbes ranked the Panthers the 23rd most valuable franchise of the 30 in the NHL. The team occupies roughly the same lowly place on the league's list of attendance leaders, drawing only about 15,000 per game, a number that has held steady for the past three years.

But those fans can be expected to follow this team only if it wins, which it has not — at least lately. Twelve years have passed since the Panthers made an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals (where they were swept by the Colorado Avalanche). Since then, the team has posted a record of 338 wins, 385 losses, and 145 ties or overtime losses. During that lengthy span, the team has won only a single playoff game.

Entering this season, there was little to suggest the Panthers could reverse that slide. In the off-season, they traded their leading scorer, Olli Jokinen. "Obviously, it means that me, Weiss, Olesz, and Booth all need to do a lot more than we have," says Nathan Horton, who was the third pick in the 2003 draft. Rostislav Olesz (pronounced OH-lesh) was the seventh pick in the 2004 draft, while David Booth was the team's second-round pick that same year.

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