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Bieksa returning to form after leg laceration

by Karl Samuelson
Several factors loom large in the Vancouver Canucks' bid to bring their game to the next level. Stellar goaltending from Roberto Luongo is a prerequisite. The team needs offensive production from forwards Mats Sundin and Daniel and Henrik Sedin. An impressive supporting cast includes forwards Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Pavol Demitra and veteran defensemen Mattias Ohlund, Sami Salo and Willie Mitchell. Each must continue to provide solid two-way performances every night.

Today there is heightened awareness of the value of an offensively gifted defenseman who also can perform a shut-down role in the defensive zone. Fortunately for Vancouver, the pressure to step up their game coincides with the return to form of defenseman Kevin Bieksa.

Bieksa was involved in a freak accident in a game against the Nashville Predators on Nov. 1, 2007. While battling Vernon Fiddler along the boards, Fiddler's skate accidentally lacerated Bieksa's right calf muscle. The deep cut knocked the emerging defenseman out for 47 games.

It proved to be a long recovery, involving many hours of rehabilitation and conditioning. It took nearly four months to regain enough strength and mobility to play, but realistically, it could take a full calendar year for a player to recover from such trauma.

"I missed a big part of last year so it's been a different role for me this year just trying to fit in again and get back in the swing of things," said Bieksa. "I feel good. I've been healthy right from training camp this year and that's the key. I was out four months last year. … It was a (rare) injury. I was worried about the unexpected. It was a scary thing. How many times can you think of this happening before? I can't even think of one time. Chalk it up to bad luck … but everything flows from being healthy."

While good health is one part of the equation, determination is the other. Bieksa has needed plenty of the latter while working his way to the NHL.

A fifth-round pick by Vancouver in the 2001 Entry Draft, the Grimsby, Ont., native was projected to be an energy player who would end be a fifth or sixth defenseman. He spent four full seasons at Bowling Green University before joining Vancouver's American Hockey League affiliate, the Manitoba Moose, for the final four games of the 2003-04 campaign. The following season he was named to the AHL All-Rookie Team after recording 39 points and finishing plus-21.

In his first and only complete season in Vancouver (2006-07), Bieksa led all Canucks defensemen with 30 assists and 42 points, and was second among Vancouver skaters in average ice time per game (24:16). Following an injury-plagued campaign in 2007-08, Bieksa is the most prolific Canucks defensemen this season and is first among all Vancouver skaters in ice time per game. He is recognized as the No. 1 defenseman in Vancouver. But it wasn't handed to him; he had to work for it.

"Absolutely," said former Canucks coach Mark Crawford, now an analyst with Hockey Night in Canada. "There's a kid that chose to go to a smaller college hockey school in the United States. Although Bowling Green has produced Rob Blake and a few other players like Nelson Emerson and George McPhee, they are not really known as a hockey power. Kevin came out of that program and worked hard at his game at the minor-league level in Manitoba. He is a great skater, has tremendous strength and plays with a real edge. Perhaps most importantly, Kevin has a great work ethic."

Bieksa shares his chores with defensive partner Mitchell, and together they form the backbone of the Canucks' blue line. Like any solid pairing, the two complement each other as they routinely play against the other team's top lines and take responsibility for the back end during special-teams situations. While Mitchell is highly regarded for his defensive-zone abilities, Bieksa is not a one-dimensional offensive sidekick. The 27-year-old has exceptional offensive instincts, but he also plays with defensive attitude. He is not overpowering at 6-foot and 205 pounds, but he brings unrelenting intensity to his game and will battle any opponent for body position and puck possession.

"Kevin is a great leader. He eats up minutes and he is good at it. He is tough and he plays hard. Kevin hits hard. Quite simply, Kevin Bieksa is the complete package."
-- Canucks assistant coach Ryan Walter

"Kevin is a guy that can play real well defensively," said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault. "He is physical and reads the play well. And offensively he understands when to jump into the play and convert a two-on-two into a three-on-two, or a three-on-three into a four-on-three. He does that real well for us so and we need that part of his game."

Defensive to offense or offense back to defense -- Bieksa can make the transition seamlessly. One universal term applies when those closest to Bieksa discuss the emerging star -- complete package.

"His basket of skills represents a real good package," said Crawford.  "Kevin has become a staple for this Canucks team. That is really something because a lot of people believed that he might possibly play in the NHL but as a fifth or sixth energy defenseman that had some toughness. But now he is playing on the penalty kill, power play, protecting leads, trying to come back in games and he logs a lot of ice time. Kevin is a very diverse player."

"Yes, he has played great for us," said Vancouver assistant coach Ryan Walter. "Kevin is a great leader. He eats up minutes and he is good at it. He is tough and he plays hard. Kevin hits hard. Quite simply, Kevin Bieksa is the complete package."

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