Florida's play making Bouwmeester's decision that much tougher

Peter DeBoer may be in his baptismal season as a head coach in the NHL. But he fully understands how frightfully hard it is to unearth a 30-minute-a-night, all-situations, entering-the-prime-of-his-career, build-your-team-around defenseman.

And how, sometimes, it's even more hellish hanging on to him.

Listen to the Florida Panthers' bench boss gush about Jay Bouwmeester and, well, there haven't been reviews this luminous since Heath Ledger's turn as the Joker.

"Jay is our best player," DeBoer said. "He's first on our team in scoring. First in the league in minutes per game. He's out there in all the key situations. We lean on him. He's a real horse. A thoroughbred.

"To me, Jay's a great hybrid. I think he's one of the top 10 defensemen ... anywhere. He's one of the few guys you can play against [Alex] Ovechkin, you can play against [Vincent] Lecavalier, you can play against [Jason] Spezza. He's big and mobile. Because of his feet and his range, he can shut people like that down. His offensive game is starting to come along, as well.

"He's only 25 and he's only going to get better and better."

Ah, but where he's going to get better and better is the question. By summertime, if a deal hasn't already been struck with the Panthers, Bouwmeester will have more eligible suitors lined up offering a 'til-death-do-us-part deal than Scarlett O'Hara.

Usually, a player auditions for a team. This season in Miami, it's the other way around. The Panthers are auditioning for Bouwmeester. They're endeavoring to show him they've cleaned up their act, the dizzying carousel of interchangeable faces is at long last at an end, and the organization can at least be a viable playoff contender on a regular basis.

No wonder the guy's dissatisfied. He hasn't played one postseason game since joining the Panthers as the third overall pick of the 2002 draft. It's awfully difficult for a young player, particularly one adjusting to defense in the NHL, to be weighted down by a poor team in constant flux.

Bouwmeester has surmounted the inherent obstacles to become a much-valued commodity. By signing only a one-year, $4.875 million deal this past summer, thereby avoiding arbitration, Bouwmeester, arguably the most unheralded blueline mainstay in the game today, basically laid down an unspoken ultimatum to his current employers: Show me, or I am outta here.

DeBoer knows it. Panthers GM Jacques Martin knows it. All Bouwmeester's teammates, the ones who count on him in so many ways, know it.

And, so far, at least, they are showing him.

The Cats won their franchise-record fifth straight road game Friday night in Calgary, a city they hadn't enjoyed any success in whatsoever since 1999. The night before, backstopped by the white-hot Craig Anderson, they shut out the big Oil Drop in Edmonton, a place they hadn't won in since 1998.

Out of 20 possible points in their past 10 games, the Panthers had accrued 14 and sat 10th in the Eastern Conference (just two points out of a playoff spot) heading into Wednesday's action.

And they'd accomplished all this despite seven regulars, including forwards Nathan Horton, Cory Stillman, Richard Zednik and defenseman Bryan Allen, missing from the lineup due to injury.

"As I said the other day, we're not planning any parade routes yet," DeBoer said. "There's a long way to go. But right now, I can't say enough about the players in our room. They're finding ways to win. And, yes, it's a great feeling."

And, in his quiet way, no one can be feeling better about it than Bouwmeester.

"I just wasn't ready this summer to commit past one year," Bouwmeester said. "It's been tough here for a while. We've had to deal with a lot of change, which is why the spell we're going through right now feels so good."

His style is never going to attract the kind of public attention that a prolific point-producer (say, a Nicklas Lidstrom) or a molar-rattler (a Dion Phaneuf) does, but those inside the game know full well of his value to any team. He's just rock solid, hooked up to a private oxygen tank that allows him to play on and on and on.

The idea of a player of this caliber being on the open market in July, or available via trade pre-playoffs if headway isn't being made on a contract extension in Florida before March 4, must be making GMs across North America drool.

"It's up to us to show him this year that this is a team headed in the right direction," DeBoer said. "We need to assure him that this is a good situation for him going forward."

And Bouwmeester's reaction to ongoing trade rumors (intensified when the Panthers made a swing to hockey-mad Canadian outposts)?

"Well," the coach replied, "they're bothering me, I can tell you that."

DeBoer was laughing when he said it. Just not too loudly.

This is, undoubtedly, a vital season for the Florida Panthers. In many, many ways.
So the best contract negotiation the Panthers could initiate in the next few months involves winning hockey games. Bouwmeester doesn't need coaxing so much as convincing.

Maybe his mind is already made up, but if so, maybe they can persuade him back.

"It's been awhile since we've come into Alberta and won one game, let alone two," said center Stephen Weiss. "There's a real good atmosphere around this group. A different feeling. Usually, we start really slowly, make a charge at the end and come up a little short.

"This season, we started poorly again. But despite a lot of key guys being out, we've fought our way back into it. That just shows the character of this team. Pete has come in and demanded that we put in the effort and don't give away anything for free."

Scoring chances. Goals. Points in the standings.

Or, in the final analysis, if they can in any way help it, their franchise defenseman.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.