SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) -Jay Bouwmeester has noticed the changes. There are growing crowds and there is bubbling excitement over his surprising Florida Panthers, a franchise whose long absence from the playoffs has often left it forgotten in the crowded South Florida sports scene.
But Bouwmeester, a talented Canadian-born defenseman, also remembers the empty seats and the silent arena that have greeted the Panthers in years past.
"There's been times when it's been kind of depressing almost," Bouwmeester said. "There's nobody there. But they haven't really had much to come and cheer about in the past."
The Panthers haven't won a playoff series since 1996 or a playoff game since 1997, but lately there is reason to hope here in Sunrise - the Panthers might be bound for the postseason. However, Bouwmeester, who is in his sixth season with Florida, might be on his way out.
With Bouwmeester set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, the Panthers have a tough decision to make by the NHL trade deadline on March 4.
"You never know what's going to happen," Bouwmeester said. "Yeah, you lose friendships and things like that, but it happens all the time. Guys come and go. I've been here for six years I think and me and (Stephen) Weiss are the only guys that are here since I started. That's just the way things are."
The Panthers have done their best to try and convince Bouwmeester that the long-struggling franchise is in the midst of an about-face. After Saturday night's 2-0 win over Boston, the Panthers were 14-5-3 since Jan. 1 and had 68 points in the Eastern Conference.
"My role is, and has been since Day One, is to try and show him that we're going to have an environment here of moving forward and hopefully he wants to be a part of it," said first-year Florida coach Pete DeBoer. "We're heading in a positive direction and this is a team that is going to be in the playoffs and playing playoff hockey now and in the future. Hopefully, that's enough to convince him to stay. But if it's not, then those are things that are beyond my control."
Bouwmeester has been a big factor in Florida's recent resurgence. He leads the league in ice time, averaging about 27 minutes per game, and has 12 goals this season.
Lean and lanky, Bouwmeester often wears blue Chicago Cubs hat pulled down low after practices and barely speaks above a mumble with reporters. The Panthers drafted Bouwmeester, a native of Edmonton, third overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, and questions about his current contract situation have followed him throughout this season.
"He's a great teammate," Weiss said. "He does most of his talking on the ice. Let's his game speak for himself. He's been a huge part of this team for a while. Hopefully we can keep him around."