Defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, the team's most valuable player to this point, will remain in Sunrise for the duration of the 2008-09 season.
That was made official Wednesday afternoon when General Manager Jacques Martin failed to receive an offer he deemed equitable. As a result, he'll deal with Bouwmeester at the conclusion of the season, which Martin hopes will include the team's first playoff appearance in eight seasons.
The decision to keep the pending unrestricted free agent Bouwmeester will not only put the All-Star defenseman at ease, but all of his teammates too.
"It was a credit to Jay because he never really allowed (the trade rumors) to become an issue, but we knew that if we lost him, it would be a huge one for our team," Panthers center Stephen Weiss told NHL.com. "I didn't think we had the luxury of trading him; we had to stick with it and then see what happens in the offseason."
"For sure, you look at his ice time (26:59) and he can play against the best forwards in this League while being an offensive-defenseman, so to lose someone like that would be a huge loss," Panthers forward Richard Zednik said.
Veteran defenseman Bryan McCabe agrees.
"Jay has been unbelievable," McCabe said. "You don't really know until you actually play with him. Everyone knows he can skate and he's great offensively, but those little things he does every night are what I admire. He plays against the other team's top line and shuts them down."
The decision to keep Bouwmeester, the NHL's reigning iron man having played in 324 straight games, is further proof of the organization's hope to provide their fans some postseason excitement.
"Hey, we've got great fans and, obviously, they want a winning product on the ice and it's up to us to make sure we're winning to get people into the building," Weiss said. "I think all the guys, and everyone who is a hockey fan, knows what it was like when the Panthers reached the Stanley Cup Final (in 1996) and how crazy that building was. We're going to do our best to get that back."
Despite the tight race in the Eastern Conference, players continue to remain adamant that the playoffs are in their future. With 18 games remaining, Florida stands five victories shy of equaling its highest win total (38) over the last seven seasons that was established in 2007-08.
"We've seen (the rubber rats) once in a while over the last few weeks and it's a neat little tradition," said Bouwmeester. "I'm sure it'll never be like it was that one year when they had the run, but who knows?"
The Panthers, who finished third in the Southeast Division last season, are looking to finish as high as second in the Division for the first time since 1999-2000. The club just completed its third five-game road trip and has yet to lose back-to-back games since Dec. 29-31, going 17-7-3 over that stretch. Heading the ship has been first-year coach Peter DeBoer, who admits early season struggles have enabled his team to establish a firm identity.
"I think that if you mapped out our season there would be some real rocky patches early because I think there was a feeling-out process for me being a first-year NHL coach and trying to lay the framework and expectations on how I felt this team needed to play in order to be successful," DeBoer said. "The players needed to get a handle on that and then buy into it and not until around Christmas do I feel we actually reached that point."
McCabe, who has already surpassed the offensive totals he amassed as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs last season, can sense the confidence within the locker room.
"I think other teams know that we're going to work our tails off and that it's not going to be an easy game," he said. "We're a team that's going to grind it out because we're not a high-scoring team; that's not how we play and that's not how we win games.
"We're successful when we get great goaltending, work hard and frustrate the opponent by making them get away from their game plan. We'll win a lot of close, low-scoring games."
The Panthers are 16-9-5 when scoring three-or-fewer goals in a game this season.
Weiss, who leads the team in points and has set a career-high with 37 assists, can see the positive influence DeBoer has made since being hired last June.
"It's all about accountability and I think that was one of the things that was lacking in the past," Weiss said. "The guys have done a good job of getting on board and even though it took us a while to get familiar with the systems, we eventually figured out what we needed to do to win and things kind of took off."
Weiss, the longest tenured Panther on the current roster at six full seasons, believes players are pushing even harder now that the playoffs are within sight.
"I think we're pretty hungry," he said. "I've been here for a while and it's no fun sitting at home watching the playoffs every year. It's a lot better being inside the top eight every night rather than trying to catch up. At the same time, it's also tough to stay in the top eight so we've been playing playoff hockey for a long time now."
Weiss knows the Panthers must continue to come hard on the forecheck and pressures the opposing defenses whenever possible. After all, that's their identity.
Defenseman Keith Ballard is confident the Panthers are playoff-bound. He points to the fact 12 players on the roster have accrued at least 20 points and eight have been credited with at least 100 shots.
"I'm absolutely confident," he said. "You look at our goaltending; it's been great and our defense has been pretty solid. Up front, we're getting contributions from everybody and we don't have to rely on 1-2 guys. That's the epitome of a team effort."
While DeBoer has every intention to make certain his club isn't sidetracked, he realizes there will be bumps in the road.
"Sometimes, the message doesn't always get across and that's when you have to do some other things like flip the lineup around or increase and decrease ice time," DeBoer said. "But, I can tell you the hearts of the 20 guys in that room are in the right place -- they want to make South Florida proud and they know what we need to do in order to get there. We're getting contributions from all 20 guys in our lineup in addition to some great goaltending."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.