Flames beat start of free agency by signing defenceman Jay Bouwmeester

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CALGARY - Defenceman Jay Bouwmeester didn't wait for the start of free agency and signed a multi-year contract with the Calgary Flames on Tuesday.

Flames general manager Darryl Sutter traded Jordan Leopold and a draft pick to the Florida Panthers at the NHL draft last weekend to acquire Bouwmeester's rights and get a head start on the competition for the 25-year-old from Edmonton.

Bouwmeester, who made just under US$5 million in the final year of his contract, was due to become an unrestricted free agent Wednesday.

A message left with his agent, Byron Baltimore, was not immediately returned but a defenceman of Bouwmeester's calibre would command a significant raise.

"We identified Jay as the priority player where we were going to focus our money," Sutter said Tuesday in a statement. "We wanted an opportunity a few days in advance of the deadline, and that's why we made the move we did this past weekend."

The Flames had about US$10 million worth of cap space to work with for 2009-10.

Calgary exited the first round of playoffs for a fourth straight year this season and aim to restore their No. 1 defensive ranking the team had in 2005-06.

Darryl hired his brother Brent as the new head coach with that in mind and the signing of the six-foot-four, 212-pound Bouwmeester is another piece of that puzzle.

"I am happy to have this deal done as Calgary was a team I was very interested in playing for," Bouwmeester said. "I was encouraged by the commitment Calgary showed by acquiring me prior to July 1."

Bouwmeester played all 82 games for the Panthers last season, compiling 15 goals and 27 assists and a minus-2 rating.

The Panthers drafted Bouwmeester third overall in 2002. In his six seasons in Florida, Bouwmeester had 53 goals and 150 assists in 471 career games.

Bouwmeester played for Canada at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, as a replacement for injured Scott Niedermayer.