SUN Hockey Pool

Earning his keep

STEVE MACFARLANE, CALGARY SUN

, Last Updated: 8:30 AM ET

Adrian Aucoin is gaining a new respect from local fans while beginning to earn every penny of his hefty contract.

One of the most controversial acquisitions made by the Flames this off-season was the trade bringing the veteran defenceman and his $4-million deal to Calgary.

Skeptics saw cracks in general manager Darryl Sutter's logic and said the 34-year-old Aucoin was over the hill and injury prone.

An inconsistent start to the season fuelled those concerns, and his most recent lasting partnership with David Hale has had those who enjoy playing the slot game -- labelling pairings as either the top duo, second fiddle or fifth and sixth blueliners -- declaring their prediction of failure a success.

But over the past month or so -- especially the last couple of weeks -- even the most negative critic has to be seeing the positives Aucoin is bringing to the lineup.

In a comeback win over the Anaheim Ducks Saturday night, Aucoin was held without a point, but logged more than 28 minutes of ice time for his third-highest total this season.

While playing a strong defensive game, he also snapped four shots on goal and had a great scoring chance fall shy when he misfired on a one-timer that would have capped off a confident pinch.

Even with the goose egg on that scoresheet, Aucoin has racked up two goals and nine points in the past eight games, showing the offensive upside that disappeared during two injury plagued seasons in Chicago following a career-best 44-point campaign with the New York Islanders before the lockout.

"Being on that first powerplay unit has obviously helped. I'm just feeling the puck more. I think most guys would always say that the more you have the puck on your tape, the better you're going to see the ice," said Aucoin yesterday after choosing to work out rather than participate in the optional practice at the Saddledome.

"It's like a snowball effect."

Admitting miscues and unfortunate hops affected him earlier in the year, Aucoin is enjoying the way the entire team seems to be coming together as the season progresses. His luck is changing, too.

"Getting some luckier bounces," he said. "A few of the bad bounces at the beginning of the season gives you a bit of hesitation to your game sometimes.

"We're all starting to gel better. Playing with Haler has actually helped my game a lot, too, because he's really steady, supports me a lot, lets me be a little more free-wheeling out there."

With 22-year-old Dion Phaneuf getting in a season-low 16:53 -- of course, he also spent nine minutes in the penalty box -- and Cory Sarich missing a chunk of the game to get his left brow stitched up, it was Aucoin who kept getting tapped by head coach Mike Keenan.

And he didn't disappoint.

"He's capable of playing big minutes. He's very capable on the powerplay as well. He's got a real hard shot, which is effective," said Keenan, who also coached Aucoin in Vancouver during the 1997-98 season.

"I think he's finding his way a little bit in terms of what he feels his contribution can be. He's a really respectful guy and probably has sat back a bit too much and waited to see how it all shaped out instead of being a little bit more assertive.

His play has improved and continues to improve as we move through the season."


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