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Bouwmeester grabbing attention of entire NHL

Monday, 01.26.2009 / 12:24 AM / 2009 NHL All-Star Game

By Larry Wigge - NHL.com Columnist

MONTREAL -- Everything Jay Bouwmeester does these days gets a lot of attention. Not too uncommon for a young defenseman who could possibly become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 -- and who could also be one of the biggest names thrown around the NHL before the March 4 trading deadline.

"Skilled defensemen like Bouwmeester can sometimes walk in from the point and surprise a goalie -- and I think that's what happened on Jay's goal tonight," said Alex Ovechkin, who found the Florida Panthers defender with a pass. "That's what I was thinking."

Bouwmeester saw a lane open up from his right-point position, took a pass from Ovechkin and rifled a shot that whizzed by goaltender Roberto Luongo's blocker to tie the score at 11-11 with just 3:39 left in regulation time, sending the game into overtime and an eventual Eastern Conference 12-11 shootout win. He also added assists on goals by Eric Staal and Martin St. Louis, had two shots, two blocked shots and was plus-3 in 18 minutes, 41 seconds.

"Hey, Jay's got a lot going for him. If he isn't about to become the most coveted free agent, he's certainly going to be the most coveted free agent defenseman if Florida doesn't re-sign him or trade him before July 1," said Edmonton defenseman Sheldon Souray. "A 25-year-old defenseman who is big and strong like Jay and shoots the puck like he does and plays the minutes he does is certainly a guy I cheer for."

Dallas defenseman Stephane Robidas echoed those sentiments, saying, "I don't think it's surprising that a defenseman gets a big goal like that in a game where there are some openings to step up into the offense. Sheldon had two goals, Dan Boyle had one and so did Andrei Markov. To me, Jay Bouwmeester is the total package. Shoots. Skates. Passes accurately and plays a ton of minutes defensively. He's a guy I always watch when I get a chance to see Florida's games."

Bouwmeester is quiet away from the game, but you can see the passion with which he plays and feel the I-want-to-beat-you competitiveness being around him for a few moments. There's no hesitation with his decisions on the ice, offensively or defensively.

"Hey, Jay's got a lot going for him. If he isn't about to become the most coveted free agent, he's certainly going to be the most coveted free agent defenseman if Florida doesn't re-sign him or trade him before July 1. A 25-year-old defenseman who is big and strong like Jay and shoots the puck like he does and plays the minutes he does is certainly a guy I cheer for."
-- Sheldon Souray on Jay Bouwmeester

So, Jay, was the goal the one moment, the one thing that blew you away and will make you remember this All-Star Game in Montreal?

"Well, sort of," he said, before flashing a big smile as he continued his thought. "Definitely, if you consider how nice it was to score on Louie (Luongo) ... since we were teammates in Florida for a few years."

See there is an edge, a little cockiness to this quiet Edmonton native, who was the third pick in the 2002 Entry Draft.

"You don't get a full appreciation for Jay unless you play with him," rookie forward Michael Frolik said after playing in the YoungStars game at All-Star Weekend. "When you see him play night in and night out, you see him make all the simple plays and make everything he does look so easy. He's such a good skater, he takes two or three strides and he's past everyone. That's why he's an All-Star."

Bouwmeester has played 26- and 27-plus minutes a night the last two seasons. This season, he's averaging 27 minutes and 24 seconds per game, which leads the NHL. He's also been on a hot streak of late that includes 4 goals and 3 assists in his last eight games, for 10 goals this season -- which is just five short of his career-high set in 2007-08.

Think about it: A 25-year-old 6-4, 222-pound defenseman who can do it all. He could also become a free agent.

"I can't really think too much about it," he said. "Right now, I like
the way we are playing as a team of late. But it's the Panthers who are going to have a decision to make."

Just before the All-Star break, Panthers coach Peter DeBoer said of Bouwmeester, "For me, he has been our MVP. He has done it all for us. He hasn't missed a game and plays against everyone's top players."

Truth be told, Bouwmeester just wants to be in the playoffs, which he has missed in each of his previous five seasons in South Florida. General Manager Jacques Martin has been trying for more than 18 months to get Jay's name on a deal that would keep him in Florida for a long time. Instead, Bouwmeester signed a one-year, $4.875 million contract last summer, knowing he could become an unrestricted free agent July 1 -- waiting to see if the team would make a commitment to winning.

It should be pointed out that under the direction of DeBoer, a rookie coach in the NHL, Florida has its best chance to qualify for the postseason since 2000. The Panthers are playing a more entertaining, up-tempo style and putting themselves in the thick of the playoff race. They got at least a point in each of their first eight games since the first of the year.

"That's where the optimism is," Bouwmeester added. "Everything looks a lot better than it has since I've been here. If we can keep this up, there's no reason we shouldn't be in the playoffs."

Bouwmeester has invested a lot of time in his South Florida experience. He's just going to sit back and see how committed the Panthers are to him. In the meantime, he shows his passion for the team and the game by the fact that he's played in all 40 games this season and has a streak of 304 consecutive games played. In fact, the only time in his six seasons he has missed any time whatsoever was 2003-04.

"We're open and listening to everything," Jay continued. "I just wasn't ready last summer to commit past one year -- and I don't think now is the right time to say one way or the other if I'm determined to become a free agent. I'm not going to make any rash decisions."

The decisions Bouwmeester makes on the ice, however, are impeccable.

"To me, Jay's a great hybrid," DeBoer said. "I think he's one of the top-10 defensemen in the world. He's one of the few guys you can play against Ovechkin, you can play against (Vincent) Lecavalier, you can play him against (Jason) Spezza. He's big and mobile. And because of his feet and his range, he can shut people like that down. His offensive game is starting to come along as well. He's only 25 and he's going to get better and better."

Without showing us his pedigree in an NHL playoff game, there is still reason to believe he is a big-game player. He was a junior phenom in Canada, starring in three World Junior tournaments. He also played for Team Canada at the 2006 Torino Olympic Games at age 22. And Bouwmeester scored the winning goal for Canada in the gold-medal game of the 2004 world championship in Prague.

And don't forget he scored a game-changing goal to send the All-Star Game into overtime and a shootout before his team won.

"You don't get a full appreciation for Jay unless you play with him. When you see him play night in and night out, you see him make all the simple plays and make everything he does look so easy. He's such a good skater, he takes two or three strides and he's past everyone. That's why he's an All-Star."
-- Michael Frolik on Jay Bouwmeester

"I don't think you can say that my performance tonight will help me get a nice new contract," Bouwmeester laughed. "It didn't feel like a real game. I only played 18 minutes."

OK, Jay. But what we are seeing is the evolution of a No. 1 defenseman since Bouwmeester plays against the other team's top lines and plays 27 minutes per game. Plus, don't you just love the way he skates into openings on offense and is able to skate down opponents and then use his big body to neutralize them?

Robidas and Souray are correct. Bouwmeester is the total package, a real impact player and difference maker on defense. He's the kind of guy who will get a lot more attention in the weeks leading up to the playoffs.