Florida Panthers and Prodigy Jay Bouwmeester Toil in Obscurity

It's halfway through the first period of the Florida Panthers' game against the Minnesota Wild. Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun skates behind the net to retrieve the puck. He whacks at it, trying to send it around the boards. But his fat goaltender's stick misses its mark.

No time to swing again. Wild center Mikko Koivu is nearly on top of him. Fortunately, Panthers top defenseman Jay Bouwmeester is coming to the rescue.

Bouwmeester is two inches taller and about 20 pounds heavier than Koivu. The advantage means Bouwmeester can slam his opponent into the boards before he can get to the puck. That kind of aggression is second nature to burly Canadians.


Jay Bouwmeester

But Bouwmeester doesn't deliver. Because Koivu has his balance, as well as a free arm, he pushes the puck in front of the net. In a flash, another Wild player flicks it past Vokoun for the game's first goal.

A quiet arena gets a little quieter.

Later, the Panthers will release an attendance figure of about 12,000. Even that dismal number, however, is inflated by all the tickets given to guests who never showed. And it's even more disappointing in light of a recent team promotion that bestows two complimentary tickets on any soul with a Florida driver's license. It's plain to see that the BankAtlantic Center, an arena that seats more than 20,000, isn't half full. It's only the Florida Panthers' second home game, but fan apathy is in midseason form.

Playing host to the undefeated Wild, the Panthers have ample chance to make their case for contender status. After all, there is no doubting the sheer potential of a team that has been stocked with so many top draft picks — even if that harvest came from a string of losing seasons.

Last year, the Panthers lost 25 games by only one goal, a statistic that suggests they're on the brink — or they're merely victims of bad luck. The team had an anemic start in 2007-08, winning only seven of its first 19 games, and then came back to narrowly miss the playoffs. If they could just start quickly this year, maybe the fans would follow, and then this franchise could finally have what it has missed for a decade: momentum.

Among the players, none has more at stake than Bouwmeester, who was the top-rated player in the 2002 draft and has been a mainstay on the Panther blue line ever since. Only recently turned 25 years old, Bouwmeester (usually pronounced Bo-mister) is the second-most tenured Panther.

He was an All-Star in 2006-07 and just missed earning that honor again last year. This season, there's greater urgency. Last summer, Bouwmeester rejected the Panthers' offer of a long-term contract, instead accepting a one-year deal, effectively inviting the team to deal him midseason. That is, unless the Panthers suddenly become Stanley Cup contenders.

A significant share of that responsibility — given his nearly $5 million salary — belongs to Bouwmeester. "First thing is that you have to make the playoffs," he says after a recent game. "That's something that hasn't happened here for a number of years." Eight years, in fact.

It's tempting to blame the franchise for Bouwmeester's failure to live up to expectations. After all, the Panthers adopted this prodigy when he was 18 years old, and over his five seasons, he has been passed between a dizzying array of faces in the front office and behind the bench. The knock on him has always been that he doesn't play with enough passion or toughness. But it's difficult to be a fiery player without fired-up fans.

Perhaps the real question is whether the Panthers and South Florida were ever compatible. Maybe a fan base that doesn't clamor for a winner deserves no better. If that's the case, then it's hard to blame Bouwmeester for beginning to pack his bags.

A month before the 2002 NHL draft, the Panthers flew Bouwmeester to South Florida. It was the first time he'd seen the ocean, and he told a reporter: "That just blew me away."

As the draft approached, though, the kid seemed increasingly queasy. "It's an honor, really, to get all the attention I've gotten," the 18-year-old said just days before he became the Panthers' first-round pick. "But I keep asking myself what it really means if I don't keep getting better and prove myself in the NHL. That's a man's league. I'm still a kid."

Dan Bouwmeester guesses his son Jay handled a hockey stick "before he could walk." And he could skate not long after he walked. They had a rink in the back yard of the family home in western Canada. "We're fanatical about hockey," Dan says.

One of Dan's hockey teammates from the University of Alberta, Rick Carriere, kept an eye on young Jay's performance. He had first seen the kid at a Christmas party when Carriere was dressed as Santa and "along came Jay Bouwmeester to sit on Santa's knee." Dan brought his son to the rink to skate at alumni functions, and Carriere noticed how effortlessly — and fast — the boy skated backward. Carriere would become general manager of the Medicine Hat Tigers, and when Jay turned 16, he made the boy the first pick in the Canadian junior league draft.

"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.

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.)

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."

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.

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."

For a franchise that seems to lose a star every year, it would be heartbreaking to the team's few fans to watch Bouwmeester go the way of Jokinen and Luongo. The chances of the strapping defenseman staying in Florida? "Slim," says Burnside, who named Bouwmeester among the prizes that could be had at this season's trading deadline, if the price is right. He thinks Bouwmeester might play with more passion if he goes to a true hockey market, like those in his native Canada, where he'll be reunited with rabid fans.

So far Bouwmeester has avoided the subject of his commitment to the team, saying that the future is up to the Panthers. But his father Dan seems to have two hands firmly on the crystal ball. "I know what's going to happen," he says cryptically, "but I can't be open about it."

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