Should the Canucks Move on From Kevin Bieksa?

For the third time in four years, the Vancouver Canucks bowed out as prohibitive favourites in the first round of the playoffs without so much as a whimper. A lot has changed in those four years, but much of the core remains the same. The same key pieces that helped drive the Canucks success towards the 2010-11 Stanley Cup are largely in tact, save for the since departed Ryan Kesler and Roberto Luongo.

A lot can happen in four years. For the aging Canucks core, much of it hasn’t been good. The Sedins have lost their fastball, but managed to stay relevant with improved defensive play – all things being relative here, we are still talking about top-fifteen scorers. Dan Hamhuis aged arguably faster than any Canuck under John Tortorella and has turned from steadfast, first-pairing stalwart to serviceable top-four defender. No remaining piece from that key group of 2011 contributors has seen their abilities atrophy to the extent of one Kevin Bieksa though.

It begs the question of whether the heart-and-soul leader from the Canucks blue line has a place in the future of this franchise. The Canucks will have an awful lot of soul searching to do in the coming months. They will have to decide in that time if they want to come out with Bieksa on the other side.

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Should the Canucks make an effort to move Bieksa, it will present its fair share of logistical hurdles. First, Bieksa’s was one of the many contracts saddled with a full no-trade clause during the Canucks hay days. Like Peter Chiarelli with futures, Mike Gillis proved all too generous in the distribution of no-trade clauses in an effort to bring down salary cap-hits and cash in on what looked like a glowing present. Bieksa’s contract is a prime example. Staring down free agency and looking at a sizable raise from his $3.75-million, Bieksa was lucky enough to count his among the earliest of those contracts. 

What remains of this extension is another year at a cap-hit of $4.6-million with just $2.5-million in actual cash owed. With a stagnant cap, set to settle at $71.5-million, Bieksa’s contract will prove every bit as onerous to potential suitors as it would be for the Canucks should they decide to keep him, but internal budget teams like Winnipeg may find value in paying less actual dollars in salary.

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But, all this operates on the assumption that Bieksa is willing to waive his NTC. While the dealing of Jason Garrison at last year’s draft proved that Jim Benning has no problem eschewing out no-trades that he had no part in signing, these are very different circumstances. Garrison had spent two seasons in Vancouver; Bieksa just finished his tenth, after being drafted by the Canucks in 2001.

Garrison reportedly flat-out vetoed a proposed deal to St. Louis that may have seen the Canucks get Patrik Berglund in return for the hometown blue liner. It wasn’t until continued pressure from management and a package that assured him a return to the Sunshine State that Garrison finally bent the knee. Imagine a player with as much attachment to both the city and the franchise as Bieksa? Lest we forget, he’s raising a family here.

That’s a big ask for a veteran player who’s given his all to this franchise. Bieksa has also developed into something of a fan favourite, and for a franchise so bent on goodwill, forcing out a player so committed to both this franchise and city could prove a PR nightmare. It could prove equally as distasteful to the locker room full of veterans that this franchise has seemingly sold a competitive retooling to, as opposed to the scorched earth rebuild most teams undertake. A move like this signals a focus on the future.

And if this year’s brief playoff run has proven anything, it’s that this franchise should make moves that are geared towards that exact end. It’s not about competing for a playoff spot next year, or in all likelihood the two or three the proceed it. It’s about competing for a Stanley Cup as soon as you’re good enough.

So one has to ask themselves, will 36 or 37 year old Bieksa be able to contribute on a Stanley Cup contending team at that point? Would any feasible return for Bieksa offer more in the future than Bieksa could?

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Well, if this season was any indicator, a 33-year old Bieksa isn’t able to contribute to a contending team at a value commensurate with his contract any more. Quite frankly – after a season as poor as last – it’s fair to wonder if Bieksa is playing at half that level. Bieksa’s played a rough ten years with this franchise and it’s hard to say they haven’t taken their toll. 

Looking solely at Bieksa’s possession numbers, this was his worst season since 2007-08 when Bieksa only suited up for 34 games. Rhys also looked at Bieksa’s decline earlier this season, concluding that his defensive game was atrophying too. And while the extent to which Bieksa was dragged down by Luca Sbisa this season can’t be understated, it also has to be noted that just a season ago, the resounding tune was that Bieksa and Alexander Edler couldn’t work together. You’ll notice a continuing theme here.


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Graph from this post in late January

Much of Bieksa’s value has long been attributed to facets of the game that won’t show up on the stats sheet. I find this sentiment holds a fair amount of weight. Bieksa’s long been a vocal leader within the Canucks locker room and a willing combatant where the fisticuffs are concerned. None of this has changed and for teams more ingratiated to an old school approach to team building, this will certainly suit the mold. 

Using some of the more readily available metrics at our disposal, though, we can assume that any potential Bieksa trade could likely yield something in the neighbourhood of a second-round pick and a B-level prospect. What also has to be taken into consideration is the $4.6-million in salary cap space that the Canucks could clear with this move. That cap space could prove the most valuable asset of all – if used (in part) on a 27-year old defender like VANCOUVER GIANTS LEGEND Cody Franson, it would represent a significant upgrade in the youth and skill department. Worst case scenario, it clears space for one of the Canucks budding young blue liners.

Not long ago just the suggestion of moving Bieksa would seem laughable. During his prime, he was an excellent defender with offensive upside and enough snarl to make the opposition’s toes curl. He’s worn the ‘A’, he’s been a vocal leader, and has always answered the bell. He was the consummate Canuck in an era which was marked by the “We Are All Canucks” slogan. His goal was the one that sent this franchise to its last Stanley Cup birth.

Yet, as we are all too often reminded, sports are a business first. The Canucks are in the business of winning. While they aren’t quite ready to do it yet, this last campaign suggests that even if they were, it’s not in their best interests to keep Bieksa and his contract in tow. What will Bieksa have left in three or four years, especially given his rough and tumble style of play?

There might be value in having a player like Kevin Bieksa on your team. I’m just not sure that applies to the Canucks anymore. It’s time to move on.