Wrapped up in a Bouw

BRUCE GARRIOCH, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:42 AM ET

Jay Bouwmeester's actions don't just speak louder than words. They speak volumes.

The big 24-year-old blueliner could have inked a long-term deal with the Panthers in the summer. Instead, Florida's first-round pick (No. 3 overall) in 2002 signed on for just one season at $4.875 million US.

The sense is Bouwmeester won't be back next season.

Slated to become an unrestricted free agent July 1, Bouwmeester will likely be one of the most sought-after players leading up to the March 4 trade deadline.

Sources say Senators GM Bryan Murray, who has been pursuing a puck-moving defenceman all season, has held talks about Bouwmeester, but, like everyone else in the NHL, is being forced to play the waiting game with the Panthers.

Florida GM Jacques Martin hasn't given up hope of signing Bouwmeester long-term and indicated he'll hold contract talks next month when discussions are allowed to resume.

"I don't think it has changed with (Bouwmeester)," said Martin, the former Senators coach and Rockland native.

Sources say Martin is taking one more stab at locking up Bouwmeester before sending him packing.

The Panthers hoped the hiring of coveted junior coach Peter DeBoer would send the message that the franchise is serious about getting back on track and into the playoffs.

But the belief is the Panthers -- who are not in a playoff position -- are already seeking offers for Bouwmeester, who went into last night's game as the only defenceman in the NHL leading his team in scoring. That was with just three goals and 12 assists in 26 games.

Moving Bouwmeester won't be easy.

PLAYER, PROSPECT, PICK

League executives believe the asking price is steep: A roster player, top prospect and No. 1 pick -- similar to what the Thrashers obtained from the Penguins for Marian Hossa last season.

The Penguins ended up losing Hossa for nothing as a UFA, so any GM who acquires Bouwmeester will want permission from the Panthers to talk contract. Ideally, the new team will have a contract extension in place before making the trade.

Bouwmeester's value is rising, however. While he struggled out of the gate, the defenceman has been the most consistent Panther lately and a big reason why they have reached .500.

"He's played much better in the last stretch," said Martin. "In the last six games, for sure, he's been a big factor."

Bouwmeester himself was tight-lipped about his future.

"I don't really have any (thoughts) right now. I have a contract and that's where it is," said Bouwmeester. "There's nothing that can really be done now. I'm just going to wait and see."

And talk. With the Panthers making stops in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, Bouwmeester knows he'll have to face plenty of questions.

"Probably the only time I ever get bugged about (my future) is when we're up here (in Canada)."


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