Slow go for Jay B

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:24 AM ET

SAN ANTONIO -- Not so fast, kid.

As far as he'd progressed along the learning curve in his first two seasons with the Florida Panthers, it was assumed by many that Jay Bouwmeester would be one of the dominant defencemen in the AHL after being relegated to the minors by the NHL lockout.

Big and strong with a silky stride, the lanky Edmonton lad seemed a sure bet to make a giant leap forward in his development with the San Antonio Rampage once he'd rested up from a solid sophomore season and playing with Team Canada at the World Cup.

Well, Bouwmeester, like a lot of blue-chip prospects on entry-level contracts toiling around the AHL during the lockout, has been finding the experience more difficult than expected.

Bouwmeester has 42 games in the books after yesterday's 3-2 overtime win over the Edmonton Road Runners, but a modest 4-10-14 and a minus-6 ranking when you add up all of his score sheets.

Average numbers for an exceptional talent.

"It's an adjustment, definitely," said Bouwmeester, who scored his first goal in 32 games to give the Rampage a 1-0 lead last night.

"There's a lot a of things that go into it."

Bouwmeester, 21, selected by Florida third overall in 2002, hasn't been awful, but he certainly hasn't distinguished himself on a San Antonio team that's been less than average.

"As a team, we've struggled to score," Bouwmeester said. "That's kind of been an ongoing thing here. We can't score goals. You keep going and you try to break out of it."

Coach Steve Ludzik isn't as patient. He recently singled out the indifferent play of Bouwmeester, Stephen Weiss and Juraj Kolnik as contributing to the struggles of his team: "They're supposed to be leading the hit parade and they're not," he said. "It's frustrating when some of the guys aren't pushing themselves."

Bouwmeester tallied 2-18-20 in just 61 games with Florida last season, a four-point improvement over the 16 he fashioned in 82 games as a rookie. Whatever the reason, this campaign's been a step back.

"It's always been a good league, but it's very competitive this year with all the guys who are down," said San Antonio captain Paul Healey. "You throw in three or four players on every team who have been in the NHL the last couple of seasons, it brings up the level of play."

For every big prospect like Jason Spezza of Binghamton - who is lighting it up atop the AHL scoring race - there's a handful of picks like Bouwmeester who are finding the gig anything but a casual twirl while waiting to be beckoned back to the bigs.

"Guys who came down thinking it was going to be easy have had another thing coming," Healey said. "It's been a wake-up call.

"I can tell you Jay's got incredible skills. A guy that big who can skate like that is something. He's still a young defenceman, but he's already got a lot of experience. This is another one for him."

Of course, offensive numbers alone don't tell the whole story.

"I don't think I'm playing bad," Bouwmeester said. "But when things aren't going well, you want to get better.

"From a team standpoint, things haven't been going the way we'd like them so far.

"We have a lot of young guys down here. We just try to keep growing together."


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