Wednesday July 30th, 2008

I'll never forget the first time I heard a scout gushing about a 14-year-old named Jay Bouwmeester. "I swore I'd never compare anyone to Bobby Orr," he gushed. "But that's exactly who this kid looks like."

That scout wasn't the only one who dared invoke the name of the game's greatest defenseman -- and in my book, its greatest player -- when describing the potential of the young blueliner. It was his smooth skating, the effortless way he had of carrying the puck, his ability to make a game-changing play anywhere on the ice. This was a player who had a chance to be special.

And while no one truly expected Bouwmeester to live up to Orr's unmatchable legacy, the hype dogged him through his final two seasons of junior, and through the early years of his NHL career. In fact, it took him until this past season before he truly looked capable of handling the role of franchise blueliner for the Florida Panthers. His play hinted at an athlete who had finally grown comfortable in his own skin, someone ready to join the ranks of the game's elite defenders.

But if he ever fulfills his potential, you can count on this: it won't happen while he's wearing a Panthers sweater.

When Bouwmeester chose to forego arbitration and sign a one-year deal on Monday that is worth slightly less than $4.9 million, the signal was clear. He'll be the next in a heartbreaking line of Florida stars to desert that rudderless ship.

Sure, the words coming out of the Bouwmeester camp in the wake of the agreement suggest that he would stay if only he could be swayed to believe the team is on the right track. Easy for him to say, because he already knows how this story is going to end.

Who can blame him for seeking his emancipation? The Panthers haven't been to the postseason in eight years, and in a tightly packed Eastern Conference where arguably only one playoff team, the New York Rangers, has slipped back, the chances of his club making the cut for the first time in Bouwmeester's pro career are slim. And despite years of high picks, there's little reason to believe that's going to change any time soon.

Surely the parade of changing faces has been equally draining. Watching the team fail to keep Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen was painful enough, but add in the minimal return and it's a brutal reminder of an entrenched culture of mismanagement. So too is the fact that incoming coach Pete DeBoer is the fifth bench boss to guide the Cats since Bouwmeester joined the squad in 2002.

Despite the inevitable divorce that lies ahead, this deal is a good one for both sides. Worse comes to worst -- i.e. he spends the entire season in Florida -- Bouwmeester sets himself up to be an unrestricted free agent who can choose his own fate next summer.

At the same time, his cap hit is manageable for almost every team, as long as a little salary comes back in the deal. That allows Florida GM Jacques Martin to entice the maximum number of suitors and maybe, finally, realize a reasonable return on the team's investment.

So the only questions now are when Bouwmeester leaves, and for what?

Conventional wisdom suggests that Martin keep his powder dry until the trade deadline, but that ain't gonna happen. Neither will he hold out until Jan. 1, 2009, the first point at which he can approach Bouwmeester about an extension.

The intentions of Bouwmeester are clear, so the time to pounce is early, perhaps during training camp. Not just because of the constant distraction that the situation will create, or the fear of an injury curtailing his value, although those factors certainly play into the equation. And not just because every game the Panthers lose further weakens Martin's bargaining power.

No, they have to move Bouwmeeter asap in order to get the franchise moving in some direction -- hopefully forward -- rather than simply treading water.

Who might be in the market? Who wouldn't be?

The 6-4, 212 Bouwmeester is a package that any team would love to add. He's developed into the league's premier workhorse, leading the NHL in both total time on ice and average TOI per game last season. He hasn't taken a night off in three years. The silky skating continues to be his primary asset, and his physical game is rounding nicely into shape. And while his point totals have dropped in each of the last two seasons (46 to 42 to 37), his goals have risen from five to 12 to 15, a sure sign of his increasing comfort with the puck and his improving ability to sniff out scoring chances. And Bouwmeester, the third overall pick in 2002, will have just turned 25 when the season begins in October.

The Anaheim Ducks, already over the cap for this season, might seem like an unlikely candidate, but they'd have to be the leader in the clubhouse. They have just one blueliner, Chris Pronger, under contract past this season and his deal extends only through 2009-10. The Dallas Stars, who could lose both Sergei Zubov and Philippe Boucher after this season, also should be in the running. The Senators and Devils also have the needs and the assets to get involved in the bidding.

That particular process won't be for the meek. The package likely will be more than the one Atlanta won from Pittsburgh in the Marian Hossa deal (Colby Armstrong, Eric Christensen, top prospect Angelo Esposito and a 2008 first-round draft pick). Look for it to involve two high-end prospects with some NHL experience, a top junior-aged prospect and a first-rounder.

That's steep, but for a special player like Bouwmeester, it's worth the risk.

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