VANCOUVER - Kevin Bieksa has gone from fringe prospect to the linchpin of the Vancouver Canucks defence corps.
When asked how far his game has come since making his professional debut with the Manitoba Moose in the spring of 2004, Bieksa could only chuckle
"It has improved obviously," said Bieksa, who has five goals and nine points in 19 Stanley Cup playoff games heading into Game 2 of the final Saturday at Rogers Arena. "It has been seven years. I've kind of taken the approach that I want to get better every year and I've learned from a lot of the great players I've played with. I understand the game a lot better than I did before and it's just part of growing up."
When he rolled into Winnipeg after completing his college career at Bowling Green University, little was known about Bieksa and he wasn't even registering on the Vancouver Canucks radar screen.
But the Moose were struggling and Bieksa got an audition and made the most of it.
Fast forward to 2011 and Bieksa plays on the Canucks' top pairing and is just three wins away from sipping out of the Stanley Cup.
Sharing the experience with guys he learned the ropes with in the minors -- such as Ryan Kesler and Alexandre Burrows -- has heightened the experience.
"It's special for sure to get to this point," said Bieksa, a fifth-round pick (151st overall) in the 2001 NHL entry draft by the Canucks. "To start in the organization from the bottom and work your way up and to do it with two guys the whole way, it's extra special. We're obviously pretty close friends."
It's funny how things work out.
Many had Bieksa on the trading block this season, but coach Alain Vigneault instead made him an alternate captain and the Grimsby, Ont., product flourished on a pairing with Dan Hamhuis.
Now Bieksa figures to be one of the hottest commodities among defencemen on the free-agent market on July 1 -- provided the Canucks don't get him signed to an extension after the final.
"I had a couple of good years early in my career and it took some time to get back (to that level)," Bieksa said. "I really had to start thinking the game more. At the beginning of my career, like most people, you rely on your physical ability -- your skill, your strength and all that stuff. If you have that and you're thinking the game, you can be that much better."
Two veterans also helped Bieksa take the next step in his progression.
"Willie Mitchell was a big help for me," said Bieksa, who will turn 30 June 16. "He was my partner for two years and we talked a lot. He's a student of the game and helped me with body position, where to have your stick, how to bait guys into going where you want to. And watching Mattias Ohlund, too.
"You take in everything like a sponge early in your career and you try to get better. That's what I did."
Vigneault talked Friday about the evolution of Bieksa's game.
"His intentions are so good and he's so competitive, that sometimes he gets a little ahead of himself," Vigneault said. "Sometimes when you try to do a little bit too much and instead of it working out well, sometimes it turns out the other way. All year long, he hasn't chased the game. He has read the play well, offensively and defensively and with his competitive nature, you've seen what the end results are.
"He has been one of the best defencemen throughout the playoffs and the regular season."