Maybe the most unlikely player in the NHL to get caught in a media firestorm is the soft-spoken and ultra-quiet Calgary Flames' defenceman Jay Bouwmeester, who was taken to task by TSN panelist Michael Peca the other night. Peca, reflecting back upon his own playing days, suggested Bouwmeester was a casual player, relatively easy to play against, who turned pucks over and lacked a sense of urgency in his game.
Pretty strong stuff and perhaps the only part where you could genuinely disagree with Peca was his theory that Bouwmeester was brought in to run the Flames' power play. When Calgary signed Bouwmeester in the summer of 2009 after acquiring his rights from the Florida Panthers just before the free-agent period was to begin, Dion Phaneuf was still considered the No. 1 power-play man on the team. Bouwmeester did score a little for Florida, but his game was all about skating and moving the puck out of the zone. He didn't get much time on the first power play even after Phaneuf was dealt to Toronto - and it looks as if he'll probably be on the second unit again this year, behind Ian White, the ex-Leaf.
Predictably, the Flames responded to Peca's criticism, although it was odd that president Ken King came to Bouwmeester's defence, not general manager Darryl Sutter, who was interviewed by TSN host James Duthie in the second intermission of the Calgary-Phoenix game (Peca's comments came during the first period break of that same game).
King was certainly within his rights to defend Bouwmeester; but he went too far by suggesting that Peca went too far. Not so. He wasn't "laughing" at him. He didn't "ridicule" him. It wasn't personal. Peca was asked a question. He gave an answer that was based on their head-to-head meetings over the six years that their respective NHL careers overlapped. In three of those, Peca played in the Eastern Conference (two for the Islanders, one for the Leafs).
Thus, his opinion was ground in personal experience from ice level; which is why TSN is employing him in the first place - to offer up his opinion, based on a 13-year career which featured two Selke Trophies as the best defensive forward in the game. Simply toeing the party line and muttering a lot of dull inanities isn't why Peca was hired. We see too much of that as it is.
Now you might disagree with Peca's conclusions, and that's OK too. Nobody sees the world in exactly the same way, no matter what line of work you're in. But you'd have to admit that Peca and fellow ex-pro Mathew Barnaby contributed to a lively conversation about what lies ahead for the Flames this season - and how Bouwmeester's increased contributions could (and should) be the catalyst in whatever success Calgary might have.
My own take on Bouwmeester's problematic first year in Calgary is that it can be largely attributed to a failure to communicate between the player and the team. Bouwmeester's arrival coincided with Brent Sutter's appointment as coach; and last year, all you heard about in training camp was the need to tighten up defensively. That was a fair starting point since the Flames under Mike Keenan were a decent offensive squad that had trouble keeping the puck out of the net, even with a superstar goaltender, Miikka Kiprusoff, manning the back end. I think what Bouwmeester heard from the coaching staff was to think defence first, last and always - and that's how he played. He rarely ventured up the ice (which, given his unbelievable skating ability, limited what he could contribute); and he played a fairly conservative game overall, with the focus purely on the defensive side of the game.
This year, from the limited number of scrimmages and games that I've seen, it looks as if the Calgary defence collectively has been the green light to play more aggressively. Bouwmeester for one, is taken advantage, pinching more, skating with the puck more and generally playing the way he did when he was with the Panthers and a candidate for Canada's 2010 men's Olympic team. Bouwmeester doesn't have that Shea Weber laser from the point, but his shot is good enough - and in his last three years with the Panthers, put 12, 15 and 15 pucks into the net. Last year, Bouwmeester only managed just three goals, but added 26 assists. His assist total matched almost exactly what he produced on average those final three years in Florida (26.3).
Will Bouwmeester ever do enough to justify a salary-cap charge of $6.68-million, third highest in the league behind Zdeno Chara ($7.5-million) and Brian Campbell ($7.14-million)? Probably not. But with one season under his belt in Calgary and his role clarified better than it was a year ago, expect to see Bouwmeester have far greater impact this time around than he did in his debut season with the Flames.