VANCOUVER, B.C. - Making better decisions has improved defenceman Kevin Bieksa's game, allowing him to be an offensive threat for the Vancouver Canucks without turning into a defensive liability.
Bieksa has nine points in the Canucks' last eight NHL games. He scored the winning goal in Vancouver's 1-0 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes Thursday night and has a plus-4 rating.
The Grimsby, Ont., native, says being a partner with veteran stay-at-home defenceman Willie Mitchell has made him better.
"Things have been going well," Bieksa said Friday after the Canucks practice. "Just playing with Willie, I have learned to read the game a little bit better.
"I'm maybe picking my spots more this year than in the past, going at the right times, knowing when not to go, knowing the time of the game."
The win over Phoenix improved Vancouver's record to 8-6-0. The Canucks play the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night at GM Place, where Vancouver boasts a 4-2-0 mark.
Some of Bieksa's offensive touch has rubbed off on his defensive-minded partner. Mitchell already has six assists in 14 games, compared to 10 in 72 last year.
"We feel like we're getting better and better every game," said Mitchell, who leads the Canucks with a plus-8 rating. "We compliment each other well.
"He's a guy that likes to be involved in the rush. I'm a guy that likes to take care of home. He's a guy that can go off and do those things and hopefully I can hold the fort."
There are times when Mitchell has to remind Bieksa he isn't a forward.
"I try and tell him in a good way," Mitchell chuckled. "There's a time when to go and when not to and I think he's learning that. Knowing the score of the game and who you are playing against, it's something you need to be very aware of.
"If it's a 2-0 game and there's five minutes left, there's no need to be drifting up the ice. That's why I like playing with him. We learn from each other."
Bieksa already has three goals this season. That's one more than he scored all last year when he missed 47 games with a lacerated calf muscle.
Last season is one Bieksa would rather forget. He missed most of training camp recovering from an abdominal injury. He started the season cold and was caught out of position on many nights.
"I was thinking too much," said the 25-year-old. "It all kind of compounded. This year I felt good right from training camp and it kind of carried on."
A bad year turned worse in a Nov. 1 loss to Nashville when Bieksa's right calf was sliced during a puck battle with Vernon Fiddler. That knocked him out of the lineup for four months.
Bieksa admitted he had some concerns about how the leg would recover but says the injury is behind him now.
"I had a really good summer for rehabbing it," he said. "It got to the point I didn't feel it at all."
The six-foot-one, 205-pound Bieksa, who is entering his fourth NHL season, looks to have returned to the form that saw him score 12 goals and collect 42 points in 2006-07.
As his confidence grows, so does his ice time. He played 26 minutes 16 seconds against Phoenix and has been averaging 24:29 a game, more than any other player on the team.
"He's playing up to his potential," said coach Alain Vigneault. "Kevin is a guy that can play really well defensively, makes good reads, is physical and has good mobility.
"Offensively I think he understands when it's time to jump up in the play. He's done that real well for us this year. We need that part of his game and he's given that to us right now."
Bieksa's name surfaced in several trade rumours over the summer as the Canucks looked to add some offensive power to the lineup.
"I didn't really pay attention to them too much," he said. "I figured out pretty early there's not much I could do so I tried not to worry about it."
The Canucks are on a bit of a roll. The team has won five of its last seven games with goaltender Roberto Luongo recording back-to-back shutouts in a pair of home-ice victories.
Like his own game, Bieksa said the Canucks' record is good, but still can be better.
"We're not complacent in here," he said. "We've been in the boat where we win one, lose one. We don't want to be a .500 hockey team.
"We feel we're a better team than that."