Photo credit: Global TV BC
After Willie Mitchell signed with the Los Angeles Kings, Canucks GM Mike Gillis moved to pick up a guy that was a younger, faster, and better replacement. His name landed on Nashville’s Dan Hamhuis, and as they say, the rest is history. But this post isn’t about Dan Hamhuis, at least not directly. It’s about Kevin Bieksa or what I like to call the Hamhuis Effect.
If there’s one player who’s seen both sides of the media spectrum with everything from praise to criticism to daily trade rumours, it’s Kevin Bieksa. He’s been in the spotlight for his game-winning heroics, under the gun for underperforming, and in the dog house for boneheaded plays.
And that’s usually just within the span of a week.
I don’t think there’s a player more simultaneously loved and hated than Kevin Bieksa. This season, however, he’s started to turn things around. Some argue that he hasn’t been consistent since signing his contract extension three years ago while many believe he’s playing well because he’s in a contract year. Both are valid points to which I may point out he hasn’t had a chance to be consistent because of the two tendon laceration injuries he had between his breakout year and this one.
Fortunately for Bieksa, the fact that he’s playing so well coincides with his contract year. But just as notable, Bieksa is fortunate that Gillis signed Hamhuis when he did.
When Kevin Bieksa had his breakout year in 2006/2007 – after which the Canucks gave him an 800% raise – his offensive numbers were directly attributable to his defensive partner, Willie Mitchell. As an offensive defenseman with a defensive game that struggles and the ability to be mistaken for a forward on most nights Bieksa’s biggest struggles have come when he’s forced to shift the onus of his game from offense to defense. Now while that seems coutner productive to the role of a blue liner, that’s just how Bieksa operates. After his breakout season, the Canucks’ back end was hit with a barrage of injuries that then forced Bieksa to assume different blueline partners, especially in the last couple of years. He’s played with everyone from Alex Edler to Shane O’Brien to Andrew Alberts to Aaron Rome – none of whom have been the defensive rock that Willie Mitchell was. (At least Edler at that stage of his career wasn’t.)
Like Mitchell, Hamhuis is rock solid at his own end of the rink and he has allowed Bieksa to make his forays into the offensive zone without being caught. Hamhuis is so good at covering the gap that it’s allowed Bieksa to take those high-rish, high-reward offensive opportunities. The regularity of a defensive partner as defensively sound as Hamhuis has given Bieksa back the ability to play his Jovanovski-esque game; consequently, Bieksa has built a confidence which further improves both aspects of his game.
There is no doubt this season Bieksa is playing better this season. Part of it may be because he’s stayed healthy this season or perhaps it’s partly because of the pressure of performing well in a contract year. Maybe it’s because he now sports an ‘A’ on his jersey – appointed by Henrik – and is expected to play better and play a leadership role. I don’t doubt that these are all influences which have brought out the best in Bieksa.
But we also can’t deny that Hamhuis has had a positive impact of Bieksa’s play. Somewhat unexpectedly, Hamhuis has quietly come in and assumed the role of the departed Mitchell. He’s been playing big shutdown minutes and his calming influence on the blueline – in a way similar to the defensive calm that Salo brings when he’s playing – has allowed BIeksa to excel. Without Hamhuis, maybe we would still be expecting more from Bieksa and Bieksa would still be underachieving.