SAN JOSE, Calif. – Jay Bouwmeester is one of those never-did guys.
He never did become a dominant player in the National Hockey League. Never did win the Norris Trophy (or even finish in the top-10 in balloting), never did turn into a driver of offence from the blue line, never did win a Stanley Cup. At least not yet.
What Bouwmeester did do was adapt and evolve. He stopped worrying about what others thought he should do and instead embraced what he could do consistently. And he never lost those beautiful wheels, that smooth, long skating stride that made him a third-overall draft pick in 2002 and was the primary reason for all those starry projections for him.
What Bouwmeester did do was keep playing, and now, at age 35 and after 16 seasons and 1,184 NHL games, the defenceman from Edmonton is two wins away from getting his first chance to play for the Stanley Cup.
As the St. Louis Blues frantically defended their 2-1 lead Friday against the San Jose Sharks, Bouwmeester was on the ice at the end to help his team even the Western Conference Final after four games.
That’s what shutdown guys do: defend.
“When you’re young, a lot of things are different,” Bouwmeester said this week. “You think you’re going to play forever and you think you’re going to have all the success in the world. For me, it took me a long time to even get to the playoffs. So when I got the opportunity to come to St. Louis, I certainly didn’t underappreciate it because it took so long to get there.”
Bouwmeester spent his first six seasons missing the playoffs with the Florida Panthers. A 2009 trade to the Calgary Flames was supposed to change everything, for the defenceman and his new team.
The Flames signed him to a five-year, $33.4-million contract. Set free from Florida, Bouwmeester was expected to break out offensively in Calgary and become a true No. 1 defenceman. He would help a good team become a Stanley Cup contender. Never did.
He never hit 30 points with the Flames and, after Calgary missed the playoffs in the first three seasons with Bouwmeester, he was traded in 2013 to St. Louis for a couple of prospects and a first-round pick.
Former Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who instilled the defensive ideals that veteran St. Louis players still talk about, turned Bouwmeester into a shutdown defenceman. Current coach Craig Berube uses him the same way on a pairing with Colton Parayko.
“We’ve used him and Parayko as a shutdown pair for quite some time now, and they’ve done a great job,” Berube said. “I think the two of them, both have great chemistry together. They’re both big guys with long sticks and they defend really well.”
Interestingly, Parayko is also from the Edmonton area and at six-foot-six is built similarly to the six-foot-four Bouwmeester. Parayko is also an excellent skater, but the 26-year-old has a better shot and offensive instincts than his mentor.
“On the ice, there are lots of different aspects of the game that I learn from him,” Parayko said of Bouwmeester. “But off the ice, too, he’s just a complete pro. The way that he handles himself and handles his body is why he’s been playing this long. Being able to play against top lines at his age is obviously impressive.
“He puts himself in good situations; that’s what you notice. He might not be the flashiest guy, might not be the first guy you notice. But he always puts himself in the right spot. And the cool thing is he still does rush the puck. But he picks and chooses the proper time to do it.
“You learn that you don’t need to necessarily put up a lot of points. Growing up, every guy on this team was probably the top guy at some point. But the way it evolves (in the NHL) is everyone has to have different roles that they kind of fold into.”
Bouwmeester won a World Cup with Team Canada at age 20, and an Olympic gold medal in 2014 at age 31.
But he didn’t play an NHL playoff game until that first spring with the Blues in 2013, when Bouwmeester was already 29 years old. He didn’t experience winning a playoff round until he was 32 and the Blues made it to the conference final in 2016 before losing to the Sharks.
Among active players, only San Jose’s Joe Thornton and his old linemate, Toronto’s Patrick Marleau, have played more NHL games than Bouwmeester without having his name engraved on the Cup.
“You learn so much more playing on good teams,” Bouwmeester said. “It would be great to come in your first year and win a Cup and all that. But it takes a while to learn what it’s all about. And you learn pretty quick how hard this is.
“You look at any successful team, and there’s a lot of guys that play a lot different roles. But what you do realize is every role is important. You do need guys to get out of their comfort zone a little bit or sacrifice a little bit for the team to have success.”
Game 5 of this series is Sunday in San Jose, and if the Blues win there they can clinch on Tuesday at home what would be the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final berth since 1970. Like Bouwmeester, the Blues have never won a Cup.
“You get to a certain point in your career and this is really what it’s all about,” he said. “Regular season, the games are good and you do enjoy that. But you really look forward to the playoffs. This is part of the reason why you’re still playing.”