There was a time last summer when it looked like Kevin Bieksa would not be playing for the Vancouver Canucks.
The rumours of his imminent departure were everywhere. There wasn't enough salary cap space to keep all the defencemen the NHL team had under contract, and Bieksa's sometimes erratic and error-prone play made him the prime candidate to be traded.
Or so it appeared to the outside world.
Canucks general manager Mike Gillis went to Toronto in early August of 2010, and arranged to meet the veteran blueliner for breakfast. More than anything, Gillis wanted to assure Bieksa the rumours were not true, there had not been a decision to move him. (Which didn't mean it couldn't happen.) But before Gillis got to address the issue, Bieksa got to the heart of the matter.
"Do you want me on the team?" he asked the GM.
Gillis assured him, yes, he did want him on the team. Or rather, he wanted the Kevin Bieksa he and coaches believed existed somewhere within the player that too often during the previous season was out of position and hurting his team more often than he was helping it.
In the vernacular of the modern NHL, Bieksa was "chasing the game," rather than allowing "the game to come to him." It is an old saw that it's often the defencemen you barely notice on the ice who are the best at what they do. (Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings being a prime example.) Bieksa was too often noticeable for all the wrong reasons.
His breakfast with Gillis must seem like eons ago now for Bieksa, who has emerged as a central figure in these playoffs. He scored a goal in Vancouver's 4-3 loss to the Sharks Friday, making it the third consecutive game in which he has scored. But he also took three penalties, including one in the last minute of the game that ruled out any chance of the Canucks tying the game.
As much as Gillis's less-is-more message helped Bieksa, his new on-ice partner this season, Dan Hamhuis, may have accounted for the biggest difference in his game. Bieksa understood he needed be more responsible and restrained, but Hamhuis made his life on the ice simpler, too.
"Watch Dan play," Gillis said last week. "Once Kevin gives him the puck, he rarely gets it back. Dan takes the puck and goes up ice with it. He gets the puck out. So that takes a lot of pressure off his partner. There is no fooling around in our end."
While the two have become the Canucks' No. 1 defensive pairing, Bieksa has also shown his offensive flair during these playoffs. With teammates trained to look for defencemen joining the attack, Bieksa has found seams on the ice allowing him to score a couple of beautiful - and key - goals.
Bieksa said Friday there is a lot of thought that goes into making the decision to dart up the ice and call for a pass.
"There are lots of things you take into consideration before you do it," Bieksa explained. "The time of the game, what the score is, who you're on the ice with, how long you've been on the ice, what period you're in, am I going to be able to get a change after it? All those things."
Like most of his teammates, Bieksa, 29, has matured since last season. He understands, better than he once did, exactly what it takes to get to the Stanley Cup final. He got a good, up-close look at the face of a champion last season, when the Canucks lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in the West playoffs.
While turning the other cheek is generally not Bieksa's nature, he's learned there is a certain time of year when you have to do it.
"It's not difficult any more," he said. "We're in the Western Conference final and there's a lot at stake here. This group really wants to win and we're all prepared to sacrifice and do whatever it takes, whether it's blocking a shot or taking a punch to the face.
"It's easier to take a punch to the face if it leads to us winning the game. Anyone in the room would make that tradeoff any day."