The reason Kevin Bieksa was perceived to be on the trading block last summer had less to do with salary-cap concerns and a glut of Vancouver Canucks defencemen, and more to do with an episode during the NHL playoffs last spring.
Like a wild horse broken over many years, the fiery, stubborn and opinionated Bieksa has not always seen eye-to-eye with Vancouver's coaching staff, much like his former defence partner, Willie Mitchell. So when the Canucks held a team strategy session last year before a second-round playoff series with the Chicago Blackhawks, it came as little surprise that Bieksa's thoughts didn't exactly jibe with those of head coach Alain Vigneault.
"We went around the room," general manager Mike Gillis said. "Guys have different views, and that's perfectly fine."
Bieksa encouraged teammates to play a style that wasn't quite chapter and verse from Vigneault's book, and if he didn't rankle Canucks management, he at least left it wondering about how much he was willing to buy into the organization's program. That led to last summer's breakfast meeting with Gillis in Toronto, an air-clearing session in which Bieksa asked direct questions about whether he was wanted by the organization, and received reassurance that Vancouver intended on keeping the defenceman no matter what the rumour mill might say.
If nothing else, Gillis's regime has proved to be patient with players when it believes there is untapped potential, and in Bieksa, the Canucks saw an all-round defenceman who could be an important contributor in a Stanley Cup push. More important, the meeting left Bieksa feeling wanted.
"It's funny," goaltender Roberto Luongo said. "Everybody counted him out as far as being traded, but he came in here with a great attitude, and I think that was key. You saw his maturity level throughout the whole season."
Bieksa, known as "Juice" in the Canucks' dressing room for reasons he refuses to divulge, readily admits that he likes to give - and take - punches when he drops the gloves with opponents.
Tuesday, he delivered the knockout punch in the Western Conference final. His double-overtime goal - his fourth goal of the series - eliminated the San Jose Sharks in five games, and sent the Canucks to their first Cup final since 1994.
That goal put a few more dollars onto a price-tag that has climbed this spring, as Bieksa has completed his ascendancy to the top of Vancouver's defensive depth chart. The native of Grimsby, Ont., has nine points and is plus-10 for the Western Conference champions, and can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
Negotiations on an extension with the Canucks have not started. They will begin after the Cup final, and it will be a short conversation because there will be little time left before free agency begins, and because the Canucks have a slotting system whereby Bieksa won't break the bank if that is primary motivation.
The 29-year-old counted as a $3.75-million (all currency U.S.) cap hit this season, but is positioned to make more than $4-million a year in free agency. Who knows? If the Canucks win the Cup and Bieksa continues his stellar play on the biggest stage in hockey, he could hit $5-million on the open market.
"He's been unbelievable throughout this whole playoffs," Canucks captain Henrik Sedin said of Bieksa.
Sedin also played a role in Bieksa's transformation this year. It was the captain's idea to name Bieksa as an alternate.
Bieksa, the fifth-most tenured Canuck, has long been one of the voices of the team, and counted on for leadership, but it had never been reciprocated with a letter. The distinction gave him some ownership of the team, and diffused some of the surliness that is critical to Bieksa's game, but wasn't always welcome in the dressing room.
Asked what he wanted hockey fans to know about him and his career, Bieksa replied: "I want them to know that I'm going to play for the Stanley Cup. That's the most important thing."