A man of few words, Bouwmeester faces his toughest decision

Panthers D-man Jay Bouwmeester can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

TORONTO -- Jay Bouwmeester took one stride to his left at the right point Tuesday night and let go a low slap shot toward the left of the net. Panthers teammate Gregory Campbell deflected the shot for the team's decisive fourth goal in Florida's 4-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It didn't look like much of a play, but like many of the things Bouwmeester does on the ice, it was made to look simple.

"If you put that shot right on net, it's probably going to get blocked," Campbell said. "So he put it out to the side and gave me a chance to get a stick on it. It's an art."

Bouwmeester is the artist on the Florida Panthers. A smooth-skating machine who logs 27 minutes, 39 seconds a game (second in the NHL as of Thursday), the 25-year-old blueliner is the complete package.

"I think Bouwmeester is as good a defenseman as there is in the Eastern Conference, with his speed and offensive ability," Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson said.

Oh, and he'll be an unrestricted free agent at season's end. What's that sound you're hearing? That's 29 other general managers frothing at the mouth at the thought of a free-for-all for Bouwmeester on July 1. But more on that later.

We've been meaning to write a column on Mr. Bouwmeester for a while, but we wanted to wait until we had a chance to see him play in person again. Of all the positions in hockey, defensemen are the hardest to gauge by simply watching them on television. Only in person can you truly admire a top defenseman's ability to anticipate plays developing in front of him and his decision-making away from the puck.

On this night at the Air Canada Centre, Bouwmeester doesn't disappoint. Always in the right place at the right time, the 6-foot-4, 212-pounder breaks up scoring chance after scoring chance and quickly gets his team back on the offensive with a perfect pass or a timely rush.

At the end of the night, he has posted one assist, is a plus-1 and has played 25:24. And he's named the first star of the game.

"You don't get a full appreciation for Jay unless you play with him," Campbell said. "When you see him night in and night out, he is so good. I think he flies under the radar with the simple plays. He makes things look so easy. He's such a good skater, he takes two or three strides, and he's past everyone. He's an All-Star in this league."

You might be wondering why we are already more than 400 words into this column but have yet to hear from Bouwmeester. We did indeed spend 10 minutes with him alone. But the Edmonton native was, as always, humble to the bone and economical with his words. He is Jeremy Roenick's alter ego.

"I really don't mind doing this stuff [media interviews]," Bouwmeester said. "When I was younger, it was uncomfortable. It's not something that came naturally. But really, it's not that big a deal now."

Let's put it this way: Bouwmeester scored the winning goal for Canada in the gold-medal game of the 2004 world championship in Prague but failed to get a quote in our story that day. So, let's just say he lets his play do his talking.

He is used to the spotlight. He was a junior phenom in Canada, starring in three IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships before going third overall in the 2002 NHL draft to Florida. He also played for Team Canada at the 2006 Torino Olympic Games at age 22.

Named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team for the second time, Bouwmeester is on pace for another 40-point season, his sixth NHL campaign after he made the jump at age 19. That's why unrestricted free agency has beckoned so quickly. For Bouwmeester, the decision on whether to sign an extension with the Panthers or try out free agency for the first time is the biggest of his career.

"It is what it is. I'm not too worried," he said.

Like water off a duck's back. Or is it? Bouwmeester wasn't himself out of the gates this season, and some people believe it was because his contract situation was bothering him. For the record, he denies that, as do coach Peter DeBoer and GM Jacques Martin.

"I got off to a slow start for whatever reason, even though I felt good," Bouwmeester said. "It just wasn't happening. But [the contract] will be dealt with, and it's been ongoing. I'm not really bothered by it. It is what it is. It happens all the time [with players in their contract year]."

Martin smirked when we suggested Bouwmeester's contract situation could command the same kind of leaguewide attention heading into the trade deadline as Marian Hossa did last season with the Atlanta Thrashers.

"I thought it would be Minnesota with [Marian] Gaborik?" Martin said with a hearty laugh.

But because Gaborik is out past the March 4 trade deadline while recovering from hip surgery, subsequently hammering his trade value, the focus definitely will shift to Bouwmeester. And Martin knows that.

"We're going to talk again with Jay," Martin said. "I had a meeting with his agent in December, and we'll speak with him again sometime in January and find out where he's at. We'd like him to stay, and if he wants to stay, he's a good player we want to build around. If he doesn't want to sign a contract, I think it changes the outlook."

It was assumed since training camp that Bouwmeester wouldn't sign an extension. The word was that he was tired of losing.

"At the start of the year, there were lots of changes, and I've seen that happen before," Bouwmeester said. "You don't know what's going to happen. So far, things have been good. Pete's a good coach. The guys respect him, and he's easy to play for. That's good. And we're having some success."

Bouwmeester didn't really have an answer when we asked him whether he thinks he'll stay. The fact is, it's a player's right to see what's out there July 1. It's an exciting time.

"Yes, you can look at it both ways," Bouwmeester said. "You just have to evaluate things."

What do you do if you're Martin? Heading into Thursday's game, the Panthers were only three points out of a playoff spot. In our opinion, they are a team on the rise.

We painted this scenario for Martin: Let's say he wakes up the morning of the trade deadline and his team is only one point out of a playoff spot, but Bouwmeester has yet to sign an extension. Could he afford to trade him? Or would he keep him for the playoff push and hope for the best?

"That's a nice scenario for the media," Martin said. "But, hopefully, we'll know well before that. We'll have an answer before that."

If the answer from Bouwmeester is no, can the Panthers keep him and risk losing him for nothing July 1?

"I don't think so," Martin said at first before quickly backtracking. "Well, I shouldn't say that. Depending on what you can get in return. That's always the intangible. As a manager, you have a responsibility to the organization to find out what you can get. And I think he's the kind of player that, if you can get assets to improve your hockey club, then you do that. If you don't, then you have to make other decisions."

It seems pretty clear to us that if Bouwmeester doesn't sign an extension in the next two months, he's gone. That definitely will disappoint the many admirers he has in the organization, people who have grown used to his growing talents.

"He plays against the best players from the other team every night," Panthers goalie Craig Anderson said. "He plays almost 30 minutes a night and shuts down the No. 1 line. Not a lot of guys can do that."

"We go as he goes. He's that important to our lineup," DeBoer said. "I haven't been through the entire league yet, but there's not many defensemen out there that I would trade for him. He does it all. He's still a young guy. He's got the feet and the competing level to play against the other team's top players. He can also jump in on the rush. The offensive game is just starting to come for him. This guy is a great defenseman now, and he's just going to get better and better."

Credit Martin, though, because he saw this day possibly coming. When he acquired talented blueliner Keith Ballard in the Olli Jokinen trade in June, it was very much with this in mind. Adding Bryan McCabe in the offseason made the blue line that much better. The Panthers don't want to lose Bouwmeester, but at least they have the depth to absorb his departure.

Does he stay or does he go? Only the man of few words knows for sure.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.