Before the NHL season began, defenceman Kevin Bieksa wasn't long for the Vancouver Canucks.
So said the chattering classes, who had Bieksa traded several times last summer after the Canucks acquired two defencemen, Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis, for a combined $8.7-million (all currencies U.S.). Even today, rumour mongers still toss his name around liberally, despite the fact that Bieksa is still playing - and playing effectively - for the only NHL team he has ever known.
"I can't say they were a huge motivator," the six-year veteran said. "I said it all along, and it really is the honest-to-God truth, I didn't really put a whole lot of [stock]into it. I didn't really care about the rumours."
The Canucks did entertain moving Bieksa, who is in the final year of a contract that pays him $3.75-million, prior to the season, but they kept coming back to one difficult truth. Their team was run out of playoff-quality defencemen in a second straight postseason loss to the Chicago Blackhawks last spring, and trading Bieksa would allow for that possibility again.
That same logic - and Sami Salo's uncertain return from a ruptured Achilles tendon - still applies heading into next month's trade deadline, and moreover, Bieksa may have made himself too valuable to trade. (Being Vancouver's only right-handed defencemen also helps his odds of staying).
The Canucks still must clear salary-cap space, about $1.5-million, to get Salo back on the active roster, but it appears less and less likely that they will move Bieksa to do so. After going without a point for the first month of the season, Bieksa has five goals and 15 points in his last 30 games. He is averaging more than 22 minutes per game, fourth best on the team behind Alexander Edler, Christian Ehrhoff and defence partner Hamhuis.
"We're both players who can play in all situations, so that sort of complements each other," Hamhuis said of their chemistry. "One guy can rush up, and the other guy is confident to back him up and play strong defence. [It clicked]probably about one month into the season. We talked a lot, and it took a little while, but it's something that takes time."
Bieksa's defensive-zone play and puck movement have greatly improved this season, and he has reverted to 2006-07 form, when he had a breakout campaign and cemented his place in the NHL. The positive steps have also helped him escape Canuck Nation's doghouse. Fans had been quick to jump on Bieksa's misgivings over the last few years, when he seemingly regressed as a professional.
Asked to compare his season to the recent past, the 29-year-old notes that he is healthy again after missing 37 games over the last two years because of two lacerations to his legs, scary injuries suffered during games. Bieksa also said that he spent last summer working on speed near his hometown of Grimsby, Ont., spending more time on the ice than he had in any previous off-season.
"Lately, he has been real consistent here," head coach Alain Vigneault said. "He came in here with the right attitude and the right focus. There was a lot of speculation, and stuff going on around him, and he kept his focus on what he had to do, and not on the speculation."