Kevin Bieksa did not end last season well. His infamous double slide (what does it mean?) in the playoffs against the Blackhawks gave those who dislike Bieksa plenty of ammunition throughout the summer to criticize the beleaguered blueliner and demand him to be traded. In fact, with the acquisition of Ballard and Hamhuis, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Bieksa was on his way out of town, given his $3.75 million contract does not include a no trade clause.
The trade rumours did make sense: after all, Bieksa has put up two 40+ point seasons, intriguing numbers for any GM wanting to add an offensive weapon to their blueline. Meanwhile, a large portion of Canucks fans have become disillusioned with Bieksa, discounting his offensive contributions because of his defensive deficiencies. Many hoped that opposition GMs would perk up at the sight of a 40-point defeseman and conveniently ignore his career -18 rating and boneheaded mistakes.
Then, Sami Salo shockingly got injured playing floor ball. Shane O'Brien failed to make the starting roster. Ballard and Hamhuis, models of health prior to joining the Canucks, fell victim to injuries just a few games into the season. And suddenly, Kevin Bieksa is a key defensive cog in the Canucks machine.
Kevin Bieksa's detractors are quite vocal (I should know, I frequently watch Canucks games with one), but I think their distaste is misguided. I won't deny what their eyes are telling them: Bieksa does make mistakes. Those mistakes, however, are rarely as egregious as they may seem, not as plentiful as imagined, and not as detrimental to his overall defensive play as generally posited. In fact, 12 games into the Canucks season, Bieksa has been a defensive stalwart. Instead, as mentioned in a Houses of the Hockey's blog post, Bieksa's detractors are suffering from confirmation bias: due to a few plays like the double-slide mentioned above, every mistake Bieksa makes is magnified and held up as confirmation of his awful defensive play. Meanwhile, every great defensive play is ignored as being inconsequential or simply, "Every defenseman should make that play." The statistics paint a different picture.
I'm going to make a radical suggestion here: the coaching staff often know what they're doing. This isn't a popular suggestion amongst Canucks fans who always know better than those inside the organization, but there is a reason Alain Vigneault is a professional NHL coach who has led the Canucks to 1st in the Northwest three of the last four seasons. Even though his decisions sometimes confuse and infuriate me, he has also been phenomenally successful as the head coach of the Canucks. Sometimes, but only sometimes, I know better than Alain Vigneault, but it's fair to give him the benefit of the doubt.
And the way Alain Vigneault has been using Kevin Bieksa in the absence of Dan Hamhuis is illuminating. Bieksa has faced the highest Quality of Competition (QoC) on the Canucks this season. He and Alberts have consistently been sent out against the top competition, with Bieksa seeing significantly more ice time per game than Alberts. Meanwhile, Alexander Edler and Christian Ehrhoff, while leading the Canucks in ice-time, have been playing very sheltered minutes, with Edler facing the lowest QoC of any defenseman not named Keith Ballard.
So, Bieksa faces the toughest competition night in and night out while playing an average of 22 minutes a night. The composition of those 22 minutes is also enlightening. In the absence of Dan Hamhuis, Bieksa leads all Canucks defensemen in shorthanded time-on-ice. He is consistently relied upon to kill penalties and is only exceeded in total minutes shorthanded by Manny Malhotra, who never seems to leave the ice on the penalty kill.
Now, all of this time spent on the ice would be detrimental to the Canucks success if Kevin Bieksa was the defensive liability he is purported to be. And yet, while he has only managed to put up 3 points this season (with 1 on the powerplay and therefore not contributing to his +/-), Bieksa is still +4.
Now I hear the stat-heads shouting already, "Small sample size!" so let's open things up from just goals scored at even-strength (which plus-minus tracks) to shot-differential at even-strength (which the Corsi statistic tracks). In a nutshell, Corsi is meant to be a measure of puck possession, using the metric of shots, including missed shots and blocked shots. Bieksa, despite being used against the opponent's best players, ranks just behind Christian Ehrhoff for his on-ice Corsi numbers with a 10.09 rating. Simply put, Bieksa moves the puck in the right direction: when he is on the ice, more pucks are directed at the opponent's net than his own.
So how do we explain this, when the story we've been given is that Kevin Bieksa is an offensive defenceman who is a liability in his own end? How do we explain Alain Vigneault consistently using him against the top players from the opposition? How do we explain his shorthanded time-on-ice? How do we explain his Corsi numbers? We've seen the mistakes with our own eyes, we decry every error he makes during each game, but the statistics for this season indicate that those mistakes either aren't as egregious as they seem or are made up for by the rest of his game. Bieksa is strong on the boards and smart with his stick, currently leading all Canucks defencemen in takeaways. He gets into shooting lanes and is third on the team in blocked shots. And he's a solid passer, getting the puck out of the defensive zone safely and still in Canuck possession.
But my theory is that one of the main reasons for his solid defensive statistics is due to what is likely the strongest area of his game: pinching down the boards in the offensive zone. Bieksa is extremely aggressive in the offensive zone, pinching all the way down past the goal line at times. With his strength along the boards, he frequently is able to keep the puck deep in the offensive zone, where the Sedins can cycle, the Kesler line can skate with the puck, and the third line can grind down the opponent's defense. And every successful pinch by Bieksa is a failed attempt to clear the zone for the other team, negating their ability to create offense. Sometimes, this tendency leads to odd-man rushes the other way, but Bieksa has shown excellent awareness thus far this season, limiting those opportunities and using his strong skating to get back into position quickly.
I mentioned confirmation bias earlier, and I admit that I am susceptible to this issue myself, as I like Bieksa and feel he has been unfairly maligned. I confess, I find myself frequently watching Canucks games keeping a close eye on positive contributions by Bieksa and risk letting those confirm my bias towards him, but I feel that the statistics strongly indicate that he is much stronger defensively than his reputation would indicate. He's not Willie Mitchell and I doubt he'll shake the reputation as offense-first, but he deserves praise for his play in the absence of Dan Hamhuis and I sincerely hope he continues his strong defensive play throughout the season.