VANCOUVER – Jannik Hansen is shedding his reputation as a great practice player.
For years, the Vancouver Canucks winger was known for looking like Mario Lemieux in workouts only to miss good scoring opportunities in games.
“He was practice player of the year for 2011,” said defenceman Kevin Bieksa with a smile.
But times have changed for Hansen, a 25-year-old who is one of the few Danish players in the NHL. Heading into Wednesday’s game against the Minnesota Wild, he has accumulated a career-high 12 goals and 11 assists.
Barring a complete meltdown, he should easily exceed the 29 points he recorded last season.
“He’s had a good year for us,” said Bieksa. “It seems like he has all the tools.
“He’s a great skater. He’s probably one of the best forecheckers in the league. We feel that around the dressing room.”
Bieksa isn’t surprised the hard-working Hansen, who is very popular among his teammates, has started to produce more offensively. He figured that was just a matter of time.
The perennial plugger had a goal in a 3-2 shootout loss to San Jose on Monday. Ironically, he was attempting to pass the puck through the goalmouth on a rush but it went in off a Sharks defenceman.
“I haven’t been in this position before so it’s nice,” said Hansen. “But we haven’t done anything so far.
“We’re halfway done in the season, and there’s a long way to go.”
Hansen ranks sixth in team scoring. Usually a third-line player, he has excelled offensively while shifting between the first three lines to help coach Alain Vigneault compensate for injuries and inconsistent play. But Vigneault said Hansen is not doing much different now that he was previously.
“I’m just seeing a young man that’s progressing and improving his skill set around the net,” said Vigneault. “Jannik’s attributes are his speed, his feistiness, the fact that he loves to win battles in the corners and take pucks to the net and is a good screen.
“All of that has been there but as you get older and more experience and you work on your art, you get better.”
The rewards have been a long time coming. Now in his fourth full season with the Canucks, Hansen joined the club in the 2006-07 playoffs straight from Portland of the WHL.
He appeared in 10 playoff games as a rookie and also became the first Dane to compete in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But the next two seasons were marred by injuries (thumb and concussion in 2007-’08, thumb in 2008-’09). He also spent time in the minors.
Hansen has defied long odds to secure full-time NHL considering he was a seventh-round draft choice (287th overall) in 2004. But Hansen says experience and more time in a Canucks uniform have helped him feel more comfortable.
But Hansen is not taking his new-found offensive prowess for granted. He’s keen to continue doing the things that got him to the NHL.
“The scoring is not what my game should be measured upon,” he said. “It’s the energy. It’s getting in on the forecheck. It’s killing penalties.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that can put the puck in the net here.”
Hansen feels skating hard, finishing checks and keeping an eye on opponents are elements he can control whereas scoring is more often a matter of getting the right bounce. Hansen would also like to become more physical.
“I haven’t been hitting as much this year as I did last year at this point,” he said. “But, playing in different situations this year, I’ve had to adjust a little bit.
“I don’t want to say you’re ever happy with where you are. You want to keep pushing.”
Meanwhile, Vancouver returned winger Mark Mancari to the AHL’s Chicago Wolves. He was called up to fill in for Chris Higgins while he recovered from a hand infection that forced him to miss a three-game California road trip.
Vancouver also placed injured winger Byron Bitz on waivers for the purpose of assigning him to the Wolves. Bitz, a 27-year-old Saskatoon native who signed with the Canucks as a free agent in the off-season, is recovering from hip surgery. He has yet to play this year after missing all of last season with abdominal and hip injuries.
He split the 2009-’10 season with Boston and Florida and must clear NHL waivers before he can officially be assigned to the AHL.
“So he’s going to go to Chicago and we’ll see what happens,” said Vigneault.
NOTES: Roberto Luongo will start in goalagainst the Wild . . . Injured defenceman Aaron Rome (thumb) and winger David Booth (knee) may travel with the team on its upcoming three-game road trip.