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Sophomore Star

by Staff Writer / Vancouver Canucks

By Jeff Paterson
DEC.13.06

 
As preposterous as this would have seemed prior to the season on a team with a superstar goalie, a sharp-shooting captain and a set of twins who continue to impress with their offensive abilities, a case can actually be made that none of those players has been the Canucks best player this season. An intelligent discussion can be held and a convincing case can be made that Kevin Bieksa has been the Canucks Most Valuable Player through the first 31 games of the season.

And Bieksa may never have been more valuable to his team than he was in Tuesday's 5-2 romp over Phoenix when he led the Canucks in minutes played (24:09), shots on goal (7) and was a team high +4. The 25-year-old from Grimsby, Ontario was all over the ice chipping in with a goal and an assist for the second straight game and was named the game's first star.

He's now fifth on the Canucks in goals (6) and points (14), not bad for a guy who a year ago at this time had never played a National Hockey League game. Bieksa missed training camp in 2005 and the first three months of the season with a high-ankle sprain and only made his Canuck and NHL debut December 19th last year at GM Place against Los Angeles.

Even in those first few games as a raw rookie, Bieksa showed the willingness and ability to jump into the rush, a skill he has refined here in his sophomore season to the point now where he seems to have a better read on the play to determine the risks and rewards involved. Oh sure, Bieksa's still a little rough around the edges and has plenty of learning to do. But when his confidence level is up as it was against Phoenix, you'd never know that the 6-foot 205 pounder was only two and a half years removed from his college hockey days at Bowling Green.

On Tuesday, Bieksa joined Ryan Kesler on a dash into Coyote country, took a feed and snapped his sixth goal of the season past Michael Tellqvist to give the Canucks a 3-0 lead. He later returned the favour picking up an assist when Kelser redirected a Bieksa point shot past Curtis Joseph to stretch the Canucks lead to 5-0.

Things happen when Kevin Bieksa is on the ice - and they seem to be happening more frequently these days with good results for the Canucks. While some of his fellow defensemen may be better in certain areas of the game, none is as versatile as the Canucks 5th round choice (151st overall) in the 2001 draft. Bieksa skates well, has a hard and accurate shot, he likes the physical side of the game and isn't afraid to drop his gloves and get after it the way he did against Edmonton's J-F Jacques last week.

This is a guy who started the season as the club's fifth or sixth defenseman, but whose stock has steadily risen along with his ice time. In the first nine games of the year, Bieksa played more than 20 minutes in a game only once. In the last nine games, he's been under the 20 minute mark only once and nearly matched his season high with 27:05 after Sami Salo left that recent game against the Oilers.

With Salo and Willie Mitchell and Rory Fitzpatrick all having missed significant time on the Canucks defense already this season, the hockey club needed someone to step up. And through 31 games, that someone has been Kevin Bieksa.

And in a day and age where the successful teams in the NHL get ahead by getting more than their money's worth out of young players, Bieksa is easily the biggest bargain on the Canucks right now. At US $525,000 this year - and more importantly again next season - the Canucks look like they've got a good one locked up at a good price.

While Roberto Luongo has given the Canucks solid goaltending in just about every start, Henrik Sedin leads the team in scoring and Markus Naslund tops the club's goal-scoring race, a case can certainly be made that Kevin Bieksa has had an impact on almost as many games as any of those higher-profile players.

Has he been the Canucks Most Valuable Player this season? That's open to debate. But what can not be debated is that in just his second year in the NHL, Kevin Bieksa's name has to be included in any conversation about who's been the best Canuck through the team's first 31 games.
 



Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight. E-mail him at jeff.paterson@team1040.ca
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