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Canadian Press
Jan 30, 2007, 8:06 PM EST

VANCOUVER (CP) - Coach Alain Vigneault admits he wasn't sure if he was ready to buy what defenceman Kevin Bieksa was trying to sell him at the start of the season.

At training camp, the Vancouver Canucks considered Bieksa to maybe be a fifth defenceman. Bieksa had higher goals. Now, with the NHL season half over, Bieksa has proven to be one of Vancouver's top four defenders and is one of the reasons why the Canucks are very much in contention for a playoff spot.

Vigneault, who coached Bieksa last season with the AHL Manitoba Moose, knew the Grimsby, Ont., native believed he had the skill to play in the big show.

"I knew he had a lot of confidence in his abilities," Vigneault said Tuesday, prior to the Canucks playing the Columbus Blue Jackets. "He always felt he could be a top-four defenceman in the NHL. I wasn't sold on that fact.

"Kevin, playing with more urgency and within his limits, would be a good, reliable defenceman. Top four was a possibility. He was determined to prove he could be top four and that's what he is on our team right now."

Heading into Tuesday's game, Bieksa was fourth in scoring for the Canucks with 30 points from eight goals and 22 assists. He's seen his ice-time steadily increase over the season and now, paired with veteran Mattias Ohlund, is usually put out against the opposition's best forwards.

Generously listed at six-foot-one and 205 pounds, Bieksa has good speed, passes the puck well and has a heavy shot.

He's also a bargain at the bank, earning just US$500,000 this year and US$550,000 next season.

"I wouldn't say I'm surprised," Bieksa, 25, said about his season. "I'm just happy with the way things have gone. I always thought I could play in this league."

The Canucks took Bieksa as the 151st pick in the 2001 draft. He spent four years playing university hockey at Bowling Green, then spent the 2004-05 season with Manitoba.

He split last year between the Canucks and the Moose, showing enough promise that Vancouver signed him to a one-way contract this season.

"My expectation was to come into camp and work my way up on the team, get a more important role than I had last year, and just build on that," said Bieksa.

"It's been a gradual thing. You look at my ice time and it's gone up gradually through the year. Just putting together back-to-back-to-back games has risen my confidence."

Bieksa started the season playing with Willie Mitchell. When Mitchell was sidelined with a groin injury, he found himself beside Ohlund.

"You learn a lot just from playing with them and watching them," he said.

Ohlund said he's been impressed with Bieksa's play.

"He plays with a lot of passion," said Ohlund. "He's one of those guys that has a ton of skills.

"He's very consistent. He's creative offensively and can make a difference on the offensive side of the game as well as playing good defence."

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