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To this nucleus of underachievers, the Panthers added a veteran overachiever. Cory Stillman, a balding 34-year-old with a knack for goal-scoring, is playing on his sixth NHL team. The hope is that Stillman can provide steadiness on a roster of young players whose collective pride might still be smarting after last year's many one-goal losses. "It could be a lot of things," Stillman says after practice, knitting his brow like a doctor inspecting an x-ray. "But the biggest thing is having confidence that you're going to win if you're up by a goal — or if you're down by a goal. It's a habit to come to the rink expecting to win."
Bouwmeester seems more circumspect than his teammates, maybe because he has spent more time with the Panthers franchise. "It's easy to be positive this time of year," he says, speaking after practice, two weeks before the start of the regular season. "There's some optimism. We have new coaches, new players, an investment in defense. And everyone's got a good attitude."
But in Bouwmeester's monotone, and with his habit of shrugging and avoiding eye contact with whomever he's talking to, he sounds like someone who has placed his car for sale and is trying to remember its best attributes.
It's understandable given Bouwmeester's uncertain future with the franchise. Panthers GM Jacques Martin was apparently so pessimistic Bouwmeester would stay that this past off-season he acquired three defensemen: Bryan McCabe, Nick Boynton, and Keith Ballard.
At the very least, it means Bouwmeester isn't likely to repeat as the NHL's ice-time leader, which the defenseman admits, "would be nice, I guess."
In the locker room after a 6-0 victory in an October 6 preseason game against the New York Islanders, Bouwmeester is slightly more effusive than usual. He is not offended that only a half-full BankAtlantic Center bore witness to his goal and the team's triumph: That's hockey in South Florida. "It's different, but everywhere is different," Bouwmeester says. "You take it for what it is. If you don't have much success, the fans don't pay that much attention to you, but it's an open market, and as long as you win, you're going to get fans here."
Typically, though, South Florida sports fans need winning and colorful sports personalities — Dan Marino, Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade. The Panthers, it seems, need a player who can both dominate a game and be a flamboyant ambassador out of uniform. Bouwmeester might be the only Panther who meets the first requirement, but he's not interested in being the latter.
"Part of the problem with Jay Bouwmeester," says ESPN's Burnside, "is that he's not a particularly dynamic kid off the ice. He's a good western Canadian boy who does all his talking on the ice. He's not like [Washington Capitals star] Alex Ovechkin or [Blackhawks star] Patrick Kane, whose personalities lend themselves to that kind of marketing. But there's no question [Bouwmeester] has the talent to be a franchise player."
That preseason game versus the Islanders provided a vivid reminder. During a second-period power play, as Stillman chased the puck in the corner, Bouwmeester crept in from the right point. He flashed into a passing lane that Stillman anticipated perfectly. Bouwmeester one-timed Stillman's pass into the goal. That looked so easy it's difficult to imagine why it would take weeks before a Bouwmeester shot found the net again.
On October 16, against the Minnesota Wild, the Panthers score a goal in the second period, but they're still behind 2-1. For nearly 10 minutes, the teams play to a stalemate. Then, with the Wild on a power play, Minnesota's Mikko Koivu handles the puck near the right face-off dot. Peripherally, he spots an opening between Bouwmeester, fellow defenseman Nick Boynton, and Panthers rookie Gregory Campbell. Koivu fires a pass through the slot. The puck finds Minnesota's Antti Miettinen, who wrists a shot over a diving Tomas Vokoun.
This sequence, along with the one that resulted in the Wild's first goal, is something Bouwmeester will remember as he sits in the locker room after the game, a 6-2 defeat. He'll have forgotten about the long, perfect outlet pass he made just before he was checked, which landed right on Campbell's stick as he streaked for a breakaway scoring chance. Nor will he remember his poke check that spoiled what would have been a Wild breakaway.
Asked after the game to name a positive, a sulking Bouwmeester gives a rueful laugh. "This is one you just try to forget and move on."
With the loss, the Panthers fall to 1-2. Coach DeBoer wears a strained expression to his postgame press conference. Asked whether he noticed how few people were in the stands, he answers, "No, I didn't. But we've got to give them something to cheer about, and tonight we didn't."
The following week, on a South Florida radio program, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman snuffed out rumors that the Panthers franchise would be scrapped.
"It's mostly a Canadian fantasy that teams like Florida disappear and the league contracts back to 24 or 26 teams," says Burnside, the ESPN analyst. "Unless Cohen gets tired of having a lousy team in a lousy market, nobody's going to take the team away from him."