Kevin Bieksa

Following the Boston Bruins’ hoisting of the Stanley Cup last week, many in the media were using the old clichés about teams beating talent and will beating skill.  I understand what those phrases are supposed to mean, but I think it’s a little misleading to insinuate that the Vancouver Canucks were not united, or that the Bruins lacked skill or talent.  The better team won the series.  Boston won four of the seven games.  They won their four games by 7, 4, 3 and 4 goals, respectively.  They lost their three games by one goal apiece.
I read a lot of opinions that the Canucks blew a golden opportunity.  I know on the surface it sounds nuts, but I disagree.  In fact, had the Canucks won Game 7 at home like the -150 money line said they were supposed to, it would have been the Bruins who blew the opportunity.  You see, when teams take each other seven games, it’s the team that lost games that it could have won that really has the burden of a blown opportunity.  Vancouver lost exactly zero games that it could have won, if we agree that the 4.5 goal margin equates to no opportunities, which of course it must.  Boston is the team that twice blew stellar one goal allowed efforts from MVP Tim Thomas, and tacked on an overtime loss to boot.  People can misremember this series all they want, and talk about how Vancouver really let it slip away, but the facts show that the Canucks truly almost stole the series from the Bruins, who would have had a hard time dealing with their blown opportunity.
With this said, I want to look ahead to next season to see which, if either, team can be expected to get back to the Stanley Cup finals.

Vancouver Canucks

For some time now, people have been applauding the job that Vancouver has done to build such a great roster despite the limitations of the salary cap.  While I agree that the Canucks looked rather stacked, they were a team that was really built to win in 2011.  The pieces are in place for a smooth transition into next season, but the Canucks have ten roster spots to fill in the offseason and only about $13.7 million with which to do that.  This average of $1.37 million per roster opening ranks 24th in the league.
The biggest of the big names are all back for the Canucks.  The Sedins are signed for 3 more years; Ryan Kesler is locked up for 5 more campaigns.  Manny Malhotra and Alex Burrows are entering their penultimate seasons under contract, and Mikael Samuelsson and Mason Raymond both have one more year left.  Whether or not the Canucks buy out Samuelsson’s $2.5 million contract remains to be seen, but they can probably expect some delays in production from Raymond, who is out at least four months from now after suffering that terrible injury to his back in Game 6.  The rest of Vancouver’s forwards — Maxim Lapierre, Jannik Hansen, Chris Higgins, Raffi Torres, Jeff Tambellini and Tanner Glass — are all free agents on July 1.  It should be noted that Lapierre and Hansen are RFAs, which will make it much easier for the Canucks to retain them, should they want to do so.  Remember though, only $13.7 million to go around…
The situation on the blue line really makes it clear how important the 2011 championship was to this team.  Going into the free agency period, the Canucks have Dan Hamhuis, Keith Ballard and Alex Edler locked up past the upcoming season.  They have Aaron Rome on retainer for this upcoming season at a discount price of $750,000, after which he will become an unrestricted free agent (UFA) if not signed to an extension beforehand.  The Canucks’ once-heralded stable of defensemen is now down to four, and one of those players is Ballard, who brings a $4.2 million cap hit for the next four seasons, and the Canucks refuse to use him in games that mean anything.
This leaves Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo, Christian Ehrhoff and Andrew Alberts all as UFAs in eleven days, and again remember, there’s only $13.7 million to go around.  While the Canucks can bring some players up from the AHL at six-figure prices, there’s almost no way they can pay all of these defensemen the money that other teams will be able to offer.  I would assume that of the four listed above, the Canucks would soonest part ways with 36 year-old Salo, but just refusing to resign him doesn’t add money to that $13.7 M pool with which to pay the other three D men.  All three played well this season, but one would think that Alberts can be had at the lowest price.  The soon-to-be 30 year-old Alberts came with just over a million dollar price tag last year, and Vancouver seemed to get at least what they paid for out of him.
Bieksa and Ehrhoff, on the other hand, are coming off $3.5 and $3.4 million seasons, and at 30 and 28 years old, probably aren’t looking to make financial concessions.  Even if those two will sign for the same money, that’s 7 of the 13.7 in available funds.  Doesn’t seem likely, does it?
All the rumors are that Bieksa will be the one to leave, and while I understand that Ehrhoff is the better defenseman per se, I don’t particularly like the idea of a team known for being “soft” washing their hands of one of the few hard-nosed producers it has.  I mean all they would have to do at that point is trade Kesler for Ilya Kovalchuk, and the caricature would be complete.  But alas, the salary cap restrictions…
Even if Bieksa is allowed to walk and Vancouver brings back Ehrhoff and Alberts to add to the four blue liners under contract, there’s no denying that on its face the 2011-12 squad would be worse off just without Bieksa, let alone Salo.  The elder statesman from Finland wasn’t worth the money he got last year, but he was still an effective hockey player, usually.  Ehrhoff and Alberts would probably cost the team somewhere in the vicinity of $6 million next season, given that Ehrhoff is an outstanding player and Ballard makes $4.2 million.  This would leave $7.7 million for more defensemen and all forwards beyond the seven currently under contract.  What would solve Vancouver’s problem is finding a taker for Ballard’s contract.  While it would seem obvious that nobody could be that dumb, I assure you there always is that one moron who tilts the game in someone’s favor.  If Islanders’ owner Wang is serious about taking on more payroll, perhaps Vancouver should give Garth Snow a call.
The Canucks are set at goalie for next season, as Cory Schneider will turn in his 28 games with a 2.30 GAA, and all for less than a million bucks.  Roberto Luongo is entering his tenth-to-last year on his contract.  Gulp.
Boston Bruins

As far as the Bruins go, I was really impressed after looking at their roster entering next season.  I mean the bottom line here in Beantown is, damn near everyone is coming back!  The Bruins have five roster spots to fill, and just over $7 million to do it with.  Their average number, only one spot ahead of Vancouver’s, is $1.43 million per opening.  But the key difference is that the B’s don’t have a lot of big earners who need to be resigned.  Assuming Mark Recchi is serious about retiring, the only Boston forwards not under contract already for next season are Brad Marchand and Michael Ryder.  Marchand is due for something of a raise after his integral role in bringing home the Cup, but a raise is acceptable when the starting point was an $821k cap hit last year.  I expect the Bruins will do everything necessary to keep Marchand, and I also expect the price not to exceed $2.5 million.  Ryder is somewhat of a different story, as he banked $4 million in each of the last three seasons.  But I have a feeling he’s a guy that the Bruins will be alright parting ways with, since they must see Marchand as a more valuable piece in their efforts going forward.  Ryder is a very good talent, but he even still has lacked the consistency to justify such a large salary.  Ryder tallied 41 points in 79 regular season games.
On defense, Boston brings back five of its six Cup-winning regulars.  Only trade deadline acquisition Tomas Kaberle is a free agent, but the Bruins are likely to bring up Steven Kampfer before giving Kaberle close to half of their available offseason funds.  Whoever the sixth D man is, he will join the ring bearers Chara, Seidenberg, Ference, Boychuk and McQuaid.  To make matters better for the Bruins, only Boychuk and McQuaid are even entering their final seasons.
Like the Canucks, Boston is also bringing back its two goaltenders, Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask.  Also like the Canucks, the Bruins have around $1.4 million per player this offseason.  But unlike the western champs, Boston only has five spots to fill, and only one must-sign — Marchand.
In order to properly evaluate which team has a better chance to return to the SCF, one would have to do a similar accounting of each’s opponents, but for now, I must say that contrary to popular belief — Vancouver is an early 5 to 1 favorite to win next year’s Cup — it is the Bruins who are better set up to make it back next year.
Thanks for being patient with me over the past week.  Like my brother’s favorite, Craig Anderson, I had to avoid burnout.  I’m strongly looking forward to doing some more of these team offseason evaluations.  Feel free to join me via comments, Twitter or email.
What do you guys think?  Will either of these teams defend their conference crowns?  Will we have a rematch in 2012?  Or are we looking at new blood next year?

I want to add, I get all of these salary numbers from, and I highly recommend it for anyone desiring to know anything about player salaries, team cap restrictions, or anything related.
It was a little over ten years ago, but I remember it like it was last week.  I was a junior in high school, and was beside myself celebrating a goal at Joe Louis Arena that put my future alma mater ahead 1-0 on the #1 team in the nation in the CCHA semifinals.  It was the only goal the Bowling Green Falcons could get past Spartans goaltender Ryan Miller, but for that one moment, it felt like a double overtime tournament winner.  The shooter:  Falcon freshman defenseman Kevin Bieksa.

Ninth-seeded Bowling Green wasn’t even supposed to be there, but they swept conference #2 Miami before winning a play-in game on the road at Northern Michigan.  By the time the conference semifinal was getting late, the majority of the crowd was chanting “Let’s go Falcons” with their cowbells and their maize and blue jerseys.  You see, it was fans of the Spartans’ hated rival, the University of Michigan, who had adopted the little team that could for those last ten minutes in what was ultimately a 2-1 escape for Michigan State.  Miller won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s best player just weeks later, and of course the Olympic Silver Medal last winter.

While Bieksa’s goal in 2001 was scored with 70% of the host state behind him, last night’s goal was scored to the ecstasy of around 70% of a nation.  Bieksa scored one of the weirdest overtime goals in hockey history, when an Alex Edler dump in caught a hanger in the glass and kicked out to the center of the blue line.  The only thing was, only Bieksa knew where the puck was.  The puck was wobbling and the D man had to step up and fire before everyone else realized where the puck was, and Bieksa caught just enough of it to guide it past Antti Niemi’s unsuspecting left pad and send the Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since the Russian Rocket, Pavel Bure, was taking the league by storm in 1994.

Kevin Bieksa: From Cult Hero to National Savior

All of this came just one series after Bieksa’s much-maligned overtime miss against Pekka Rinne, in which Henrik Sedin fed a centering pass to the charging defenseman, who had almost the entire net open as Rinne was aggressively playing Sedin to his left.  Rinne dove across the crease and made the save on Bieksa’s shot, but many people pointed to the fact that Bieksa did not get much on the shot, did not lift the puck at all, and shot it directly at Rinne, rather than the open part of the net.  Bieksa brushed off the criticism, saying that he was not much of a finisher, and that’s why he does not play forward.  And even though the Canucks won the series, I don’t think that misfire was completely put to bed until last night.

None of this would have happened had Ryan Kesler and Henrik Sedin not hooked up on a tip drill with 14 seconds to play in regulation to tie the game at 2.  It was Sedin’s second assist of the night.  Roberto Luongo again had to make over 20 more saves than Antti Niemi, as the Sharks outshot Vancouver 56-34, to no avail.  Remember that in Game 4 San Jose outshot the Canucks 35-13 in a game that saw them fall behind 4-0 before eventually losing 4-2.  My take on the San Jose Sharks moving forward will come sometime before the Stanley Cup Finals start, but for now, this is all about Vancouver and my fellow Falcon, Kevin Bieksa.

Bieksa has always been something of a cult hero amongst Canuck fans, due to his hard hitting, game awareness and timely goal scoring.  But this is Bieksa’s “jump the shark” moment, pardon the quasi-intentional yet perfectly situated pun.  No longer can people refer to the man who has scored the most famous goal in recent franchise history as anything shy of a bona fide Vancouver legend.  

In fact, Bieksa better be careful, or people might start calling him Mr. May.  While he only has 34 career regular season goals in 347 games played, Bieksa has amassed a shocking five goals in these 2011 playoffs.  That equates to a tripling of his career goals per game total, and only improves his already heroic status in the minds of those who follow him the most.  Even if he manages to avoid the Mr. May tag, there’s no guaranteeing there won’t be a “Kevin Bieksa Facts” website in the near future.

Good luck to the Canucks in the Finals, and to my fellow Falcon and game winning goal scoring defenseman, Kevin Bieksa.