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Florida Panther D Welch traded to Tampa Bay for D Eminger @NHLdotcom

SUNRISE, Fla. - The Florida Panthers held on to Jay Bouwmeester but sent fellow defenceman, Noah Welch, to in-state rival Tampa Bay before the NHL trade deadline on Wednesday.

The Panthers, in the midst of a playoff push, acquired defenceman Steve Eminger in the deal, and the Lightning also picked up a third-round pick in this year's draft.

Welch, 26, played in 23 games for the Panthers this season, including the last three.

Eminger, 25, has four goals and 21 assists in 62 games this season. He spent five NHL seasons with Washington and has recorded 10 goals and 58 assists in 274 NHL games.

The big news, however, was the trade that didn't happen. Florida's decision to keep Bouwmeester, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, overshadowed Wednesday's move and signalled that the once-hapless franchise was serious about a playoff berth.

"I don't think I should say the number, but there were legitimate offers," Panthers general manager Jacques Martin said. "They were offers that didn't fulfill our needs. I wanted two players in return, a defenceman who could play in our top four. Some teams thought their defense could play in our top four. Obviously, I didn't."

Bouwmeester, 25, was Florida's first choice in the 2002 draft and is in his sixth NHL season. He has spent his entire NHL career with the Panthers, who haven't won a playoff series since 1996 or a playoff game since 1997.

Martin said the Panthers would hold off on further contract negotiations with Bouwmeester's agent until the season ends. Florida coach Peter DeBoer, who has tried to make the Panthers an attractive club for Bouwmeester, said Wednesday he thinks the budding star has seen improvement.

"Anybody around the team this year has a great appreciation for how good he is and how important he's been to our team," DeBoer said. "For me, the longer we have him here just extends the opportunity for us to hopefully make that impression on him and get him to stay."

The current NHL ironman, Bouwmeester holds the league's longest consecutive games streak; Florida's 4-3 win over the Atlanta Thrashers on Tuesday night was his 324th game in a row. He logs about 27 minutes of ice time per game and has 13 goals in 64 games this season.

Florida has hardly made itself an attractive club for a young talent like Bouwmeester in recent years. But this off-season, Florida hired DeBoer, a highly touted junior coach from the Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers, and shipped centre Olli Jokinen to Phoenix.

The Panthers are 17-7-3 since Jan. 1. They have won three of their last five games, all on the road, and were in sixth place in the Eastern Conference with 74 points Wednesday. Florida faces Pittsburgh on Thursday night.

Eminger, who previously played two seasons of junior hockey under DeBoer in Kitchener, was traded from Philadelphia to Tampa Bay in November. The Lightning have lost three of four and are in 13th place in the East.

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