It wasn’t supposed to be this way, but has worked out in the best possible fashion.
Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa were expected to reunite after the NHL lockout as the prime shutdown pair. Alex Edler and Jason Garrison rehabbed injures during the work stoppage, were paired during informal skates once medically cleared and were properly pencilled in as the second pairing. Keith Ballard and Chris Tanev would form the third unit, while Andrew Alberts and Cam Barker would be depth options for the Canucks.
That sounded good and looked good.
It took five games for it to unravel like a ball of string.
In the opening minute on Jan. 27 in San Jose, Garrison couldn’t clear the rebound off a Marc-Edouard Vlasic shot, which allowed Joe Thornton to easily score. Less than three minutes later, Edler put a clearing attempt on the stick of Joe Pavelski for another gift goal in a 4-1 loss. The pairing was split after the gaffes, Garrison teaming with Bieksa, while Edler joined Hamhuis. And through the course of indifferent play, injuries and even a suspension to Edler, Hamhuis would eventually join Garrison as twoleft-shot defencemen trying to make the right moves. It worked.
The dutiful and durable Hamhuis started piling up more points than his blue-line buddies to be recognized as the club’s best defender this season. And all the crazy Twitter talk of the struggling Garrison being a compliance buyout in the off-season subsided as the heavy shot and wavering confidence returned for the big-buck, free-agent acquisition. He went from finding shin pads to finding space and the net and finding his comfort level in the defensive zone. Hamhuis eased those concerns with his steady play and even demeanour on and off the ice.
After scoring just once in a 15-game span, Garrison found the mark in consecutive games earlier this month with a slapper from the point that was hard, low and accurate. He did it again during the final regular-season home game Thursday. Hamhuis didn’t teach Garrison that shot, but taught him what it’s like to play in a market where the performance bar is set high, and walking the streets where everyone knows your name and your game.
“He’s helped me tremendously because he was a free agent and a B.C. boy who came here,” said the 28-year-old Garrison. “He knows the demands. He’s very calm and plays big minutes against top-end guys. It’s talking to him and seeing how he views the game and how he defends. He prepares so well and that’s why he doesn’t make many mistakes, so it doesn’t happen often where he might get mad. He can turn an opposition mistake into a great chance because he’s so competitive and a solid player.
“And he has that dynamic where he’s really good at both ends of the ice and whenever he jumps up into the play, he has such vision. For me, he’s so easy to play with.”
The ease that Hamhuis exudes seems effortless, but his durability comes from his devotion to the game and his way of life. Already possessing a strong stride, he works with local power-skating coach Barb Aidelbaum because he wants to be better, even at age 30, when most players start to lose a step. It has helped the Smithers native escape trouble and transition into offence and pinch when the opportunity presents itself.
“He will probably get one extra contract at the end of his career just because he’s such a student of the game,” said Aidelbaum, who has guided 59 current and former NHL players. “He works on every aspect of his game and he’s a leader, and people watch that.”
Hamhuis handles credit like a hot potato; he prefers to toss it to others. But in what would be a career season if projected over the usual 82 games, there’s something to be said for the right reads that Hamhuis is making: not only to pinch when warranted, but not get caught up ice and cough up odd-man breaks.
“If you can make it a four- or five-man attack, that’s a lot harder to defend and I enjoy the offensive side of the game,” said Hamhuis. “But it starts with good defence when you’re not spending much time in your own zone and the skating we did at UBC during the lockout helped with a lot of puck-battling drills.
“I’ve been around a long time. When my emotions get out of control, it doesn’t help. I need to think clearly and that’s not to say I’m not emotionally engaged in the game. I find when I’m level-headed, I play my best because I don’t outwardly show it with yelling and screaming. There’s a time and place for it, but to do it all the time doesn’t help.”
The balance that Hamhuis has on and off the ice and his work in the charitable community means the Canucks never have to guess what they’re getting on any given night. A man of faith, Hamhuis hasperspective.
“My faith as a Christian helps me a lot with my hockey,” he said. “It’s the base of my life. Opinions of others don’t matter because you know there’s a bigger game out there in life and allows you to play more free. It allows me to carry myself differently, as opposed to getting caught up in negativity. There’s so much wisdom from the Bible that you learn how to handle situations at work and at home.”
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