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The Florida Panthers and star Jay Bouwmeester toil in obscurity

It's halfway through the first period of the Florida Panthers' game against the Minnesota Wild. Panthers goaltender Tomas Vokoun skates behind the goal to retrieve a puck. He whacks at it, trying to send it around the boards. But his fat goaltender's stick misses the puck.

No time to swing again. Wild center Mikko Koivu is nearly on top of him. Fortunately, Panthers top defenseman Jay Bouwmeester is coming to the rescue.

Bouwmeester is two inches taller and about 20 pounds heavier than Koivu. That advantage means Bouwmeester can slam Koivu into the boards before he can get to the puck. That kind of aggression is second nature to burly Canadians.

But Bouwmeester doesn't deliver. Because Koivu has his balance as well as a free arm, he pushes the puck in front of the net. With a flash, another Wild player flicks it past Vokoun for the game's first goal.

A quiet arena gets a little quieter.

Later, the Panthers will release an attendance figure of more than 12,000. Even that dismal figure, however, is inflated by all the tickets given to guests who never showed. And it's even more disappointing in light of a recent team promotion that bestows two complimentary tickets on any soul with a Florida driver's license. It's plain to see that the BankAtlantic Center, an arena that seats more than 20,000, isn't half full. It's only the Florida Panthers' second home game, but fan apathy is in midseason form.

Playing host to the undefeated Wild, this game presents the Panthers with ample chance to make their case for contender status. Besides, there's no doubting the sheer potential of a team that's been stocked with so many top draft picks – even if that harvest resulted from a string of losing seasons.

Last year, the Panthers lost 25 games by only one goal, a statistic that suggests they're on the brink – or that they're merely victims of bad luck. The Panthers had an anemic start in 2007, winning just seven of their first 19 games, a deficit they had to rally against the rest of the year only to narrowly miss the playoffs. If they could just start quickly this year, maybe the fans would follow, and then this franchise could finally have what it has missed for a decade: momentum.

Among the players, none has more at stake than Bouwmeester, who was the top-rated player in the 2002 draft and has been a mainstay on the Panthers blue line ever since. Only recently turned 25, Bouwmeester (usually pronounced Bo-mister) is the second-most-tenured Panther.

Bouwmeester was an All-Star in 2007 and just missed earning that honor again last year. This season, there's greater urgency for him to do well. Last summer, Bouwmeester rejected the Panthers' efforts to sign him to a long-term contract, signing instead to a one-year deal, effectively inviting the team to deal him midseason to a team with a better chance to win the Stanley Cup. That is, unless the Panthers suddenly become a Cup contender themselves.

A significant share of that responsibility – given his nearly $5 million salary – belongs to Bouwmeester. "First thing is that you have to make the playoffs," he says after a recent game. "That's something that hasn't happened here for a number of years."

Eight, in fact.

Bouwmeester has the skills to be a franchise player, and it's tempting to blame the franchise that he's not. After all, the Panthers adopted this prodigy when he was 18, and over his five seasons, he has been passed among a dizzying array of caretakers – a carousel of faces in the front office and behind the bench. The knock on Bouwmeester has always been that he doesn't play with enough passion, toughness. But it's hard to be a fiery player without fired-up fans.

Perhaps the real question is whether the Panthers and South Florida were ever compatible to begin with. Maybe a fan base that doesn't clamor for a glimpse at the Hall of Fame talent that lies within Jay Bouwmeester doesn't deserve to see it realized. If that's the case, then it's hard to blame Bouw­meester for beginning to pack his bags.

A month before the 2002 NHL draft, the Panthers flew Bouwmeester to South Florida to meet him face to face. It was the first time he'd seen the ocean, and Bouwmeester told a reporter, "That just blew me away."

As the draft approached, though, Bouw­meester seemed increasingly queasy about the expectations that awaited him on the other side. "It's an honor, really, to get all the attention I've gotten," the 18-year-old said just days before he became the Panthers' first-round pick. "But I keep asking myself what it really means if I don't keep getting better and prove myself in the NHL. That's a man's league. I'm still a kid."

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Thomas Francis

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