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Although even the top picks in the NHL draft often start their professional careers in the minors, Bouwmeester played all 82 games of his rookie season. But that year, as well as his second, Bouwmeester didn't quite look the part of a scoring defenseman, collecting just six goals.
After a labor dispute canceled the 2004-05 season, league officials worried about fan support. They drafted rule changes that favored athletic skaters and led to more goals. A less physical, finesse game favored the sport's pure athletes, like Bouwmeester. He stepped into the opposing team's offensive zone with more frequency, assisting on 41 goals. The next year, at age 23, Bouwmeester became a goal-scoring threat, notching a dozen. Last season, he scored a career-high 15.
Even with that increase in scoring, the statistic that defensemen prize most is their plus/minus. That is, the ratio between goals one's team scores while he's on the ice versus how many his team gives up. It can be misleading for players like Bouwmeester, who has had so few All-Star teammates. But it's still a measure of his development that Bouwmeester's ratio improved every year from minus-29 as a rookie to plus-23 in his fourth season. Now, Bouwmeester has a career average of minus-28.
Those were solid numbers, but the 18-year-old Bouwmeester was right to feel the weight of the comparisons made between him and the league's best-ever defensemen. When Larry Robinson was Bouwmeester's age, his time on the ice brought him a plus-120 ratio. Bobby Orr managed a plus-124. When he was just 24, Paul Coffey scored 48 goals.
"I'm one of the people who looks at Jay Bouwmeester and wonders when the star will emerge," says Ken Campbell, a columnist for The Hockey News. "You watch him skate and you can see his size, but after a game, sometimes you wonder whether he even played."
That tendency to fade into the scenery is the reason Campbell rates Bouwmeester as one of the league's top 20 defenseman. Based on raw ability, Campbell would rank him in the top five. "He doesn't have that intensity, the mean streak. He doesn't play a physically demanding, punishing game. It's not in his makeup. And it will continue to keep him from being an elite defenseman in the league."
Lacking that quality, opposing players are bolder about standing in front of the Panthers net, where they can deflect a teammate's shot for a goal. Or they're obliged to bully smaller Panthers players, daring Bouwmeester to come to his teammate's aid.
Campbell isn't even convinced that Bouwmeester really makes his teammates better, pointing to the losing records that followed him from junior hockey in Medicine Hat into the NHL with the Panthers.
Dan Bouwmeester has been hearing critics talk about his son's lack of toughness for years. It still quickens his temper. "Anybody who says he's not tough is out to lunch," he snaps. He cites a game last season when his son roughed up Montreal Canadiens wing Alexei Kovalev in retaliation for a hit on Panther center Nathan Horton.
But that kind of rough play is a rarity for Bouwmeester. Last year, no defenseman in hockey played more minutes than Jay Bouwmeester, partly because he managed to stay out of the penalty box. By Dan Bouwmeester's reckoning, it takes more guts to stay on the ice and risk eating a 100-mph slapshot than it does to skate to the penalty box. "Some of these detractors should try standing in front of a net for 30 minutes a night before they talk about toughness."
The Panthers take at least some of the blame for Bouwmeester's inability to meet his potential. The front office has been unable to develop a star forward, despite seven top 10 draft picks in the past ten years. The Panthers blundered mightily in trading away star goalie Roberto Luongo. They've also gone through coaches at a rate that would make George Steinbrenner blush.
After Bouwmeester was drafted, he was coached by the legendary Mike Keenan. In Bouwmeester's second year, Keenan was fired, replaced on an interim basis by Dudley, who gave way to John Torchetti in 2004. When Keenan returned to the franchise as GM, he brought in yet another new coach, Jacques Martin, who also assumed the GM's job when Keenan left in 2006. After last season, Martin stepped down as coach but remained as GM, hiring Peter DeBoer behind the bench. DeBoer, a decorated junior hockey coach, came in with no experience leading a pro team. He is Bouwmeester's fifth coach in five pro seasons.
"It's fair to say that the Panthers are one of the worst-run franchises in the NHL, and it shows in their record," says Scott Burnside, hockey analyst for ESPN.com. "What would Jay Bouwmeester be like if he'd have gone to a team with more stability in coaching and general management?"
To Dan Bouwmeester, that's a tantalizing question. It's evident that he's been frustrated not only by the way the Panthers have handled his son but by the very existence of a hockey team in a region that doesn't appreciate it. "It shouldn't even be in the NHL," he says. "It's not a hockey town. Why is it even down there?"