- Scott Burnside, NHL
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After losing their franchise goalie in one of the most foolish trades of all time two summers ago, the Florida Panthers now face the prospect of losing their franchise defenseman in Jay Bouwmeester, who refused to sign a long-term deal and can now become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2008-09 season.
And the hits just keep on coming in South Florida.
A team that hasn't been to the playoffs since 2000 and hasn't won a playoff round since its inexplicable berth in the 1996 Stanley Cup finals continues to reveal as much stability as the sand castles being built on the beaches just a few miles from its mostly empty BankAtlantic Center.
Good thing the Panthers managed somehow to mistakenly charge fans for an extra exhibition game this season, because they'll be lucky to get any warm bodies in the door next year if Bouwmeester does as expected and beats a hasty retreat to a team with at least half a shot at a playoff berth.
This isn't all GM Jacques Martin's fault, although his inability to sell Bouwmeester on the future he is charting for the team suggests this team might have a plan (hey, let's get in the playoffs for a change) but no real clue as to how to execute that plan.
Clearly the team's plans moving forward have Bouwmeester as its centerpiece, yet the seeds for his discontent or at least his skepticism were sown years ago. How did that Roberto Luongo-Lukas Krajicek-for-Todd Bertuzzi-Alex Auld-and-Bryan Allen deal turn out, anyway?
With Bouwmeester avoiding arbitration and signing a one-year deal on Monday worth a shade under $4.9 million, the Panthers now face the prospect of having to absolutely tear it up through the first 25 to 40 games of the season to even have a remote chance of keeping Bouwmeester in the fold.
Bouwmeester's not Vincent Lecavalier, who put down roots in Tampa Bay and signed what amounts to a lifetime extension this summer even in the face of turmoil with the Lightning. Lecavalier won a Cup in Tampa and has joined his future with that of the franchise. Bouwmeester, the third overall pick in 2002, will have just turned 25 when he begins his sixth NHL season in October. The Panthers have shown him nothing but early springs and a series of head-scratching personnel and management decisions.
If the Panthers can't suggest emphatically through the first half of this coming season that there really is hope for the future and that Bouwmeester is a big part of that hope, then he will be gone.
Because he's set to become an unrestricted free agent and has signed on for just one year, Bouwmeester cannot sign a contract extension until Jan. 1, 2009. Martin will know, however, long before that whether Bouwmeester wants to stick around. If, as many expect, the answer is "See ya later, here's an extra box of sunscreen," Martin will be in the same sticky situation his Southeast Division colleague Don Waddell was in a year ago with Marian Hossa, trying to blue-sky his franchise's future in a market that cares little for hockey while trying to make sure to maximize the return on a blue-chip asset determined to get out of Dodge.
If Bouwmeester makes it to the open market next summer, you can start with Brian Campbell-like numbers -- eight years, $56.8 million -- and start heading north. He is, in short, a stud. At 6-foot-4, 212 pounds, he skates well, is physical and his offensive game is starting to round into shape as his goal totals have gone from five, to 12 to 15 since the end of the lockout. He led all players in average ice time last season with 27:28, a number made even more impressive given that Bouwmeester played in all 82 games for the third straight season.
The Edmonton-area native was a member of Canada's gold-medal Olympic team in 2002 and will be a significant element of the Canadian blue line in Vancouver in 2010. He might possess the personality of a freshly caught grouper, but Martin should be able to obtain good, even great, value for Bouwmeester before next February's trade deadline if he can't get him to sign on long term.
And therein lies the problem for the Panthers. Even if they get off to a great start, even if they look like a playoff team, will it be enough to keep Bouwmeester in sandals for the long haul? Rookie head coach Pete DeBoer represents the fifth head coach to pilot the Panthers since Bouwmeester arrived in the fall of 2002, with Mike Keenan, Rick Dudley, John Torchetti and Martin having all had at least a brief twirl at the post.
And so the Panthers face the grisly prospect that after years of showing so little, whatever they might show in the coming months might not be nearly enough to keep yet another core piece from sliding away in a market where all too few people care to begin with.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
It appears another core piece of an already floundering franchise is going to leave for greener pastures. Barring a miracle, this is likely the last season Jay Bouwmeester will be donning a Florida Panthers uniform.