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Panthers now turn attention to making playoffs

by Mike G. Morreale
There was one thing on the mind of Florida Panthers General Manager Jacques Martin as the NHL trade deadline reached a climax Wednesday afternoon, namely accomplishing something his team hasn't done the last seven seasons -- qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It was the recurring theme that entered his head with each inquiry for All-Star defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. Ultimately, it was the primary reason Martin nixed every offer for the most coveted blueliner on the final day of wheeling and dealing in the NHL for 2008-09.

"There were a couple of offers that were interesting, but I think in the end, we're very pleased to have Jay here," Martin said. "What we established as an organization a while ago, and what our priority was even before we entered into this process, was to make the playoff and that's why we're here with this scenario."

That scenario always included Bouwmeester in the thick of the postseason hunt with his Florida teammates.

"We have a lot of important games coming up and I would want him to focus on playing and we'll have plenty of time after the season to talk contract," Martin said. "Let's just focus on winning hockey games, getting into the playoff and winning in the playoff."

"From my perspective, it gives us a little longer to try and convince him to stay," said Panthers coach Peter DeBoer. "I think anybody around the team has a great appreciation to how good he is and how important he is. For me, the longer we have him here just extends the opportunity for us to hopefully make an impression on him and make him stay."

The Panthers enter Thursday's home game with Pittsburgh in sixth place in the Eastern Conference with 33 wins and 74 points. The Penguins are tied with the Rangers in the seventh slot with 33 wins and 72 points.

While Martin never divulged specifics of those teams interested in Bouwmeester, he did admit some of the proposals were intriguing.

"I think we had some teams and some legitimate offers, but I don't feel I need to tell you the number of teams involved," Martin said. "They were offers that didn't fulfill our needs. It was not only future draft picks, but I made it very clear that I wanted a player in return; ideally two players. I was looking for a defenseman that could play in our top four. Some thought the offers they made included a defenseman that could play in our top four, but I didn't think that way."

Martin might also have been seeking some depth at the center position.

"It's something I did work on, but we weren't able to accomplish that so it's something we'll still look at down the road," Martin said. "At this point, I feel we're good enough (with Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss and Greg Campbell). Shawn (Matthias) has also been playing well in Rochester. I like the chemistry of this club right now and I feel confident. Our schedule is favorable as far as home versus away games."

The Panthers will play 11 of their remaining 18 regular-season games in Sunrise.

"I explored the possibility of trading Jay, but I think I made it clear in the last couple of months that we would only move him if we felt it would improve our hockey club," Martin said. "Obviously we didn't get an offer like that, so we're pleased that he remaining with us."

In addition to keeping Bouwmeester, Martin also swapped defensemen with the Tampa Bay Lightning when he acquired Steve Eminger in exchange for Noah Welch and a third-round draft choice in June.

This season, Eminger ranked first among Lightning defensemen with 25 points, was third in ice time per game with 22:27 and was fifth overall on the team with 21 assists.

"Steve is a competitor and a player who Peter (DeBoer) is familiar with from his junior hockey days so he knows where he stands," Martin said. "He brings toughness and strength and, hopefully, he'll help our hockey club down the stretch."

Eminger played four years of junior hockey for the Kitchener Rangers from 1999-2003, playing his last two under DeBoer along with current center Campbell. The trio won a Memorial Cup together in 2003.

"I think he does have the potential to be a top four defenseman," DeBoer said of Eminger. "He's got good character and our organization has put a premium on bringing in good people, and Steve fits that. He also has enough skill where he could have the potential to be a top four."

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