The Canucks’ master plan is far from a top-secret document.
General manager Dave Nonis has been blunt when it comes to discussing his blueprint: scout, draft, and manage your assets. July 1st, he says, is not the day you build a championship hockey team.
It should come as no surprise then that the Canucks’ biggest splash of the summer came Monday in the form of a contract extension for Kevin Bieksa
– Vancouver’s fifth-round pick in 2001 out of Bowling Green University in Ohio.
“It was an easy decision,” Nonis said. “He's quickly becoming an important part of our team. He's a very young guy that becomes a free agent in the next year, so from our standpoint, it was important to lock him up long-term at a number we're comfortable with.”
Bieksa, who turned 26 in June, had one more season under his old deal. His new agreement will keep the Grimsby, Ontario native in Canucks blue through 2010-11.
“We recognize that he’s playing on a contract that's probably a bit below what his value is,” said Nonis. “I think this next contract recognizes what he means to our team.”
And that’s plenty.
Bieksa scored 12 goals in his first full season – six on the power play – and was second among all full-time defenders in plus/minus. Not bad for an under-sized defenceman who didn’t get his first professional contract till 2004 where he signed a deal with the Manitoba Moose after four full seasons in university.
The late start certainly didn’t hurt Bieksa’s development.
His 42 points in 81 games was tops among all Vancouver rear guards, and his 24:16 minutes per game was second only to Mattias Ohlund.
“I'm pretty happy with how [this season] went, but I still think I've got more,” said Bieksa, who was named the 2007 Breakout Player of the Year by The Hockey News . “I want to just keep getting better and learning the game and becoming a complete player.”
The choice to re-sign in a city where’s he’s had such a meteoric start to his NHL career wasn’t a tough one.
“It was a very easy decision. I've had a great time the last two years here. It's a great city, great community.”
“I love the way this team's set up. The guys that we have are great character guys that are going to be here for a while, so to sign here for another three years is just a dream come true.”
And not just for Bieksa. He’s quickly become a fan favourite in Vancouver. He not only filled the offensive hole left when Canadian Olympian Ed Jovanovski moved to Phoenix last summer, but Bieksa also provided a frighteningly effective physical presence on the blue line.
It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to envision a letter on Bieksa’s sweater in the not-too-distant future.
“We feel he's going to develop into a strong leader as he gets a little more experience,” said Nonis. “He does provide a lot of grit and effort on the back end, so for us to have those players at numbers that make sense to us long-term, and to have them locked up long term, definitely makes sense to us.”
The Bowling Green alum joins a formidable Canucks blue line that’s laden with talent and veteran leadership in players like Ohlund, Willie Mitchell, and Sami Salo
“I'm definitely aware of the group I'm joining here for the next three years,” he said. “The core of the defensive group are all great guys. There's a lot I can learn from each one of them. I've already learned so much from them… and I'll continue learning from them.”
“We have a good core group, aside from a few additions, we have pretty much the same guys coming back. I think everyone in the dressing room expects to do even better than last year.”
That will mean repeating as division champs and advancing to the conference finals for the first time since 1994. The Canucks came within a few bounces and three overtimes of upsetting the Ducks in the Western semi-finals this spring.
The second-round loss was even more painful for Bieksa who missed three playoff games after injuring his ankle in the final regular-season game of the year, then tearing muscles in his side in the first-round match-up versus the Stars. The strain made brushing his teeth a chore, never mind logging 20-minutes of playoff hockey every second night.
“I'm just looking forward to getting back on the ice right now,” said Bieksa. “It was a tough way to go out in the playoffs this past year. We had a really good team and we knew that and we knew we had a good chance.”
“It left kind of a bitter taste knowing that [the team that beat us] went on to win the Stanley Cup. We thought we deserved maybe a better fate, so I’m just anxious to get back to training camp and get the season going.”
Notes: Bieksa joins returnees Taylor Pyatt and Lukas Krajicek, who both re-upped with the Canucks this summer… Byron Ritchie, Curtis Sanford and Brad Isbister remain the Canucks’ most notable free-agent signings thus far... Bieksa earned six fighting majors last season. AUDIO
Bieksa: an easy decision
Bieksa: getting better
Bieksa: learning from the vets
Bieksa: looking forward
Bieksa: next year
Nonis: made good sense
Nonis: what he brings
Nonis: expectations for next year