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Bouwmeester getting closer to playoffs

4/2/2013

A decade after his first NHL season, defenseman Jay Bouwmeester is on the cusp of playing in his first NHL playoff tournament.

At least the St. Louis Blues, the team that acquired the highly coveted left-handed shooting defenseman from the Calgary Flames in a pre-trade deadline deal Monday evening, hope they are the ones who are about to provide that rare opportunity.

The Blues edged out other competitors for Bouwmeester’s services, including their Central Division rivals the Detroit Red Wings, sending a first-round draft pick to the Calgary Flames along with a former Blues first-round draft pick, defenseman Mark Cundari, and netminder Reto Berra.

If the Blues miss the playoffs this season, the Flames will get a fourth-round pick in the 2013 draft and the first-round pick will be deferred until the 2014 draft.

And there’s the rub, no?

Bouwmeester, who had a no-trade clause that allowed him to determine his own fate, must have believed mightily that the Blues are going to be the team that opens the door to his first-ever NHL playoff experience, and that they can be the team that many expected them to be this season. Similarly, the Blues clearly believed that having the former third overall pick in the 2002 draft in their lineup would make that possible.

In fact, Bouwmeester said he didn’t need to speak directly to the Blues when approached about the trade by Flames management in order to agree to the deal.

"It was nice that he didn’t need any reassurances about where we were going," St. Louis general manager Doug Armstrong told ESPN.com late Monday night.

The Blues, who defeated red-hot Minnesota 4-1 Monday night to move back into the top eight in the Western Conference after being momentarily displaced by equally red-hot Columbus, are not a lock by any means to qualify for the playoffs.

But the team had been searching for a left-handed defenseman to play with either Kevin Shattenkirk, who scored Monday night, or Alex Pietrangelo.

Being a left-handed shot, along with his smooth skating stride and smooth puck handling, was what made Bouwmeester so attractive not just to the Blues, but other clubs that came calling after it became clear the Flames were in rebuild mode after trading captain Jarome Iginla to the Pittsburgh Penguins last week.

"I think he’s a dynamic skater," Armstrong said. "I really like how he defends against good players."

Bouwmeester’s conditioning will also allow him to play 25 minutes or more a night if that’s what head coach Ken Hitchcock desires.

A source told ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun that the Blues had tried to get the Flames to eat part of Bouwmeester’s salary -- he has one season left on the books at $6.68 million against the salary cap, slightly less, $6.6 million, in real salary -- but the Flames refused.

The Blues agreed to the deal in spite of the fact they have a slew of restricted free agents to deal with in the offseason, including defensive foundations Shattenkirk and Pietrangelo, and key offensive contributors Chris Stewart and Patrik Berglund.

But with new ownership in place, the Blues are looking to build on last season’s surprise ascension to the Central Division title with a strong playoff showing this spring -- if they can get into the top eight when the dust clears at the end of April.

The Blues have been up and down during the lockout-shortened season and their goaltending and team defense has been likewise up and down.

Will the acquisition of Bouwmeester -- and that of veteran defenseman Jordan Leopold, whom they acquired from Buffalo earlier in the day for a second-round pick in 2013 and a conditional fifth-round pick -- change that?

There has been a perception of Bouwmeester, an Edmonton native who shares the same hometown as Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock, as being an underachiever through much of his career. Was that a function of his level of play, or of the circumstances in which he has been placed?

During his time with Florida, the team that drafted him, the team was rarely in contention for a playoff berth. Since being traded to Calgary in June 2009, it’s been more of the same.

While the Blues are not the team they hoped they would be this season -- not yet at least -- this represents Bouwmeester’s first opportunity to play with a team that has all the tools necessary for not just a spot in the playoff grid, but a serious run at a championship.

Now we’ll find out whether the past decade, and all of the hardship that has gone along with it, has been all about circumstance for Jay Bouwmeester, or something else.

"It is what it is,” Armstrong said of Bouwmeester’s playoff drought. "Sometimes you’re a victim of circumstance."

You’ve got to play your first playoff game sometime, and Armstrong said he is hopeful this season marks the first of many postseason games Bouwmeester plays in a Blues jersey.