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Mattias Ohlund skated with a new defensive partner in practice yesterday, openly content with the situation after accepting a rewarding contract extension.

Ohlund is considered a core player in Vancouver and the thrifty Canucks are determined to have key players under long-term contract before any messy negotiation results in a holdout.

Last summer, the Canucks rewarded top scorer Markus Naslund with a three-year, $15-million (U.S.) extension before turning their thoughts to another valued Swedish import in Ohlund, a lanky, 220-pound defender.

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Ohlund has played through a serious eye injury, suffered two years ago in Ottawa when he was struck by a deflected shot, and is considered one of the top defenders in the National Hockey League after averaging more than 27 minutes of ice time a game last season.

Dave Nonis, senior vice-president and director of hockey operations for the Canucks, said negotiations with Ohlund's representative were complicated because of the Canadian market situation and bonus provisions.

What he didn't say was the sticking point in talks was Ohlund's right eye that apparently couldn't be insured by the team or player.

"The only issue was his eye," said Ohlund's agent, J.P. Barry. "In the end, the club was really good about dealing with the situation."

Ohlund's new contract is for an additional three years, averaging $2.75-million (U.S.) a season. The Canucks also accelerated a bonus payment from the original deal that wasn't due until next summer.

Both sides take risks in the new contract in regards to Ohlund's vision, although Barry was not clear on detailed provisions.

Former Toronto defenceman Bryan Berard, another player who has suffered serious eye damage on the ice, signed last week with the New York Rangers.

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"There are a number of things contained [in the Ohlund contract]that could bring Matty right into the 2004-05 season and that's what we expect to happen," Nonis said. "This deal was signed with the intention of having Mattias here for a long time."

Ohlund, 25, will earn a base salary and bonus of $1.9-million (U.S.) this season in the last of a five-year deal signed before his NHL rookie season in 1997-98. The Swedish international player, drafted in 1994, had signed an offer sheet by the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Canucks were forced to match the five-year deal for $10-million (U.S.).

Ed Jovanovski and Ohlund are considered core players on the Vancouver defence, with Jovanovski under contract through next season. The Canucks may attempt to extend his deal later this season.

"At the right time we'll approach him," Nonis said. "Brian [general manager Burke]has made it clear we think it's important our core players are signed.

"From our standpoint, if they're signed to multiyear deals, that's even more beneficial. We're going to continue on that road. We do believe we have a team here that our players want to play for."

Ohlund played alongside veteran Murray Baron on opening night Thursday when the Canucks lost 5-4 to the Chicago Blackhawks. Ohlund was even for the game for goals scored at even strength when he was on the ice.

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Baron was minus one and didn't skate yesterday. He was on crutches after blocking a shot by Tony Amonte with his right foot in the first period.

Rookie defender Bryan Allen was partnered with Ohlund in yesterday's workout, even though Allen didn't have a strong opener and played little after the first period when he was beaten for a goal on a rush by Kyle Calder.

Ohlund played 26 minutes 22 seconds over 33 shifts and was dependable as usual, assisting on the team's first goal of the season by Donald Brashear.

"I love this city, I love the teammates I have and my family loves it here," said Ohlund, born in the northern Swedish city of Pitea. "The security this gives me is real important. This team has a bright, bright future."

Ohlund missed 47 games over two seasons after the eye injury, but his vision was not an issue this year during training camp and the preseason. He has about 70-per-cent vision in his right eye and wears a contact lens in games.

"It's the first time since my eye injury that I feel that I'm in the shape I wanted to be," Ohlund said. "It's the best I've felt by far going into a season, both mentally and physically."

Revered in his homeland, Ohlund was one of the first eight players selected to the Swedish team for the Olympic Games in February at Salt Lake City.

The contract extension suited Ohlund because he didn't want to become distracted during the season.

"Even if you don't try to think about it, there definitely would have been times this season when it was on your mind," he added. "I'm not the type of player that wants to be concerned with stats or points or personal goals -- just focus in on the team play and make sure we have another good season here."

Ohlund will play his 260th NHL game tonight against the Detroit Red Wings, who feature the best Swedish-born defenceman in Nicklas Lidstrom. Both grew up appreciating the talents of Swedish great Borje Salming when he was with the Maple Leafs.

Lidstrom and Ohlund just might wind up being defensive partners come the Olympics.

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