VANCOUVER – For most of the summer speculation swirled that defenceman Kevin Bieksa would be moved, a victim of the Vancouver Canuck’s tight salary-cap situation.
But 29 games into the NHL season Bieksa remains a Canuck. His offensive numbers may be down but he’s tightened up his defensive play and reduced the mistakes that sometimes made him a liability.
He will bring his veteran experience and sometimes surly attitude when Vancouver plays the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday (CBC, 7 p.m. ET).
“I don’t think we look at each other and say you’re an offensive guy and you are a defensive guy,” Bieksa said following practice Friday. “The way this team is built I think everybody can do both.
“It’s just the reads. It’s an equal opportunity for sure.”
The Leafs will be without goaltender J.S. Giguere who re-injured his groin in Thursday night’s loss to the Calgary Flames. He already missed two weeks and six games in November, and another two games last week with the same groin injury.
“It’s similar to what I had previously,” said Giguere. “It’s a step back.
“The key right now is just to make sure that I know exactly what’s going on and take care of it right away. It’s not something that should happen. I think there’s something going on. It’s a question of the trainers and I figuring it and making sure we take of it once and for all.”
Giguere, a 13-year veteran, is 8-7-2 with a .890 save percentage and 2.80 goals-against average this season. Jonas Gustavsson will be the starter while Giguere is out.
Bieksa, meanwhile, combines a hard-hitting physical style with good puckhandling skills. Coaches have always liked his hands but worried about where his head was at. Bieksa can follow a stellar defensive play when a brain cramp that results in a turnover.
Coach Alain Vigneault wanted to see more consistency from the 29-year-old native of Grimsby, Ont.
“When he got here this season we talked about his role on the team and making sure that defensively he would be real high percentage wise and real good,” said Vigneault. “I think we’ve seen that from him.
“This is a game of mistakes and you are going to make mistakes on the ice. For the most part Kevin has been really dependable lately.”
Bieksa has just two goals and five points this season. While his scoring has dropped, he has reduced his errors and upped the intimidation factor in his game. He recently dropped the gloves in a fight with Aaron Voros of the Anaheim Ducks.
“I’ve always taken pride in being good at all parts of the game,” said the six-foot, 200-pound Bieksa. “That’s just part of the game out there.
“You stick up for yourself and your teammates. That’s just the way I was raised.”
The Canucks haven’t lost to Toronto since November 2003. Since then Vancouver is 6-0 against the Leafs and outscored them 25-12.
Not all the wins have been easy and the Canucks have been forced to come from behind.
“I don’t think we can underestimate these guys, not to say we’ve done that in the past,” said Bieksa. “They are a good team and they play hard every time.
“We’ve fallen behind the last couple of times early and had to claw our way back. We’re not always going to get results when you are doing that. We are going to have to get a good start.”
The Canucks (17-8-4, 38 points) are first in the Northwest Division and seeded third in the Western Conference. Vancouver is 7-1-1 in its last nine games.
The Leafs are ending a three-game Western swing that saw them win in Edmonton on Tuesday but lose in Calgary. Toronto (12-15-4, 28 points) is last in the Northeast Division and 12th in the Eastern Conference.
Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf said the Leafs are struggling with consistency.
“We have to be more consistent night in, night out with just little things,” said Phaneuf. “It comes down to competing.
“The biggest thing with our team is right now we want to keep learning, keep getting better and keep becoming more consistent. When we play we are a very tough team to play against.”
Canuck Henrik Sedin said it would be dangerous to take Toronto lightly.
“They’ve got a lot of speed,” said Sedin. “They work extremely hard.
“They are a tough team to play. It’s tough to get a read on them. You have to be prepared.”
Having Toronto in town means fans showing up at Rogers Arena dressed in blue-and-white jerseys. It’s a chance for Canuck fans to chuckle over the Leafs follies.
There are teams the Canucks dislike more, but beating Toronto is still special.
“I’m not going to say we don’t like each other, but it’s a big rivalry,” said centre Ryan Kesler.
The fact the game time was moved up three hours to satisfy eastern TV audiences has rankled some Vancouver fans.
“It’s a little different,” shrugged forward Alex Burrows. “Your preparation will be different.
“At the same time there is going to be a lot of intensity and a lot of buzz in the building. They are easy games to get up for. We will be ready.”
Bieksa is in the final year of a contract that pays him US$3.75 million. His days in Vancouver seemed to be numbered when the Canucks acquired defenceman Dan Hamhuis ($5 million) and Keith Ballard ($4.2 million).
When Sami Salo suffered an Achilles tendon tear during the summer, Bieksa’s spot on the roster seemed safe.
Salo, who earns $3.5 million, is expected to return in the new year, once again raising questions about Vancouver’s salary cap situation.
Bieksa laughed when reminded about the rumours about his future.
“It’s interesting to sit back and listen to a lot of the gossip and fabrication,” he said.
Hardnosed on the ice, Bieksa has a sharp sense of humour in the dressing room.
He was asked about the Canucks calling up forward Aaron Volpatti from the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. Volpatti, a Revelstoke, B.C., native played college hockey at Brown University while Bieksa went to Bowling Green.
“It brings the overall IQ of the team up,” Bieksa deadpanned. “It’s no secret it’s a little low on this squad with a lot of guys from major junior.
“We have a ways to go in that area.”