It was a nadir.
On Hockey Night in Canada, in early October, the unusually erratic start to Dan Hamhuis’s NHL season hit an embarrassing low.
With Vancouver and the Montreal Canadiens tied 1-1 late in the second period, the Canucks were on the power play. As Hamhuis took the puck behind his own net, a string of terrible luck unfolded: the puck slipped from his stick, deflected off both of goalie Roberto Luongo’s skates and ended up in the Vancouver net.
The own goal was almost comical in its oddness, with the image of Luongo bending over, looking between his legs at the puck sliding in, Hamhuis there desperately reaching with his stick to stop it from happening. The Canadiens went on to win 4-1 and, after the game, a jarred Hamhuis avoided reporters.
It was the worst of a bumbling start for Hamhuis, the Canucks top defensive defenceman, whose reputation is built on a quiet and remarkable steadiness. It was a history of rock-solid play that garnered the 30-year-old an invitation to the summer camp for the Canadian men’s 2014 Olympic team.
Hamhuis was always a long-shot to make the cut for Sochi but he has quickly turned around his season.
The struggles sparked worry among the notoriously panicky Canucks fans and commentators, with one observation of Hamhuis’s early plus-minus standing of minus-4 being “shocking” – never mind that bad luck was definitely a factor that compounded his own mistakes.
“That’s why people were maybe a little shocked,” defenceman Kevin Bieksa said, “because he looked human for a bit.”
Hamhuis was slow to adjust to the changes instituted by new head coach John Tortorella and also played with a rotating case of defensive partners, including Bieksa and Jason Garrison. Chris Tanev, a young, steady D-man in the mould of Hamhuis, is now his established partner.
Bieksa recalls reassuring assistant coach Mike Sullivan: “Just don’t worry, Dan’s going to be okay.”
“Sully knew that,” Bieksa recalled. “Dan’s a guy you don’t worry about. You know he’s going to find his ‘A’ game. Everyone knew it was a matter of time.”
To add to the reversal of fortune, Hamhuis has discovered an offensive punch, scoring against the Toronto Maple Leafs last Saturday, and the Phoenix Coyotes last Tuesday, increasing his year’s goal total to three, prior to Thursday night’s game against the San Jose Sharks – a torrid pace, given his best for an entire season is seven.
“Consistency is something I’ve worked on over the years,” Hamhuis said before the Canucks left for their current road trip. “This year, there’s a lot of changes going on with the new coaches, probably a little bit of an adjustment period for me at the start. I feel like I’ve turned the corner.”
It wasn’t a single play, or game.
“Starting just making more and more good plays, played more and more good minutes, and they just built off each other.”
The season is, however, still a work in progress. While Hamhuis generally faces other teams’ top lines, the measure of shot attempts for the Canucks versus shot attempts against, when he is on the ice at even-strength, is not quite where it’s been in the past.
He’s contributed to incredible games, such as against the Maple Leafs when the Canucks produced 31 shot attempts compared with a feeble four against with Hamhuis on the ice. But against Detroit last week, or Phoenix last Tuesday, the Canucks were peppered by pucks when Hamhuis was on.
At the end, his teammates appreciate the Hamhuis they’ve long known. “I wouldn’t say he was struggling,” team captain Henrik Sedin said. “It was just a short period of time.”