The Strange Case of Keith Ballard

 

Keith Ballard Canucks

(Icon SMI)

When the Canucks acquired defenseman Keith Ballard from the Florida Panthers on day one of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, most fans of the team were very positive regarding the move. Ballard had developed a reputation as a swift-skating, hard-hitting, exciting defenseman during his tenure in Phoenix and Florida. In 2008-09, he was widely regarded as Florida’s best defenseman (not the most impressive distinction, I know), above the likes of Jay Bouwmeester and Bryan McCabe. Flash forward to two years later, however, and he was routinely being healthy scratched in Vancouver. What happened along the way to set Ballard off course? More importantly, what can he do to get back on it?

During the 2008-09 season, Ballard recorded 34 points. He led Florida defensemen with a solid plus-14 rating, playing close to 23 minutes per contest. He played 2:20 or more per game on both the power play and on the penalty kill. His most frequent defensive partner that season was Nick Boynton, who he played with over 40 percent of the time (stats according to DobberHockey’s Frozen Pool Tools). Ballard’s strong play earned him a massive six-year contract extension worth north of $4 million per season.

In 2009-10, he took a small step back. His level of play wasn’t quite as consistent, he accidentally threw the puck into his own net (something he later taught to Alex Edler), and he almost decapitated his starting goaltender. Boynton was replaced by Jordan Leopold, who Ballard played with 37 percent of the time. Not exactly a huge swing in talents, although they are two very different defensemen. Ballard saw slightly more time on the penalty kill and slightly less time on the power play, but his total ice time was nearly identical to the previous season. His plus-minus dropped to minus-7, and his production also dropped to 28 points (although he did score two more goals – eight compared to six).

Likely being called over for a line change. Flickr/Mafue

When GM Dale Tallon took over in 2010, he wanted to clean house. Ballard was placed on the trading block shortly before the 2010 Entry Draft, and he didn’t last long on it. The Canucks quickly flipped their 1st pick that year (Quinton Howden), Steve Bernier, and Michael Grabner for Ballard. At the time, Grabner was largely an unknown, but had started to show signs of his goal scoring prowess (including a spectacular hat trick in Anaheim near the end of the regular season).

Not much was made of it at the time, but Ballard (who had played in all 82 games for three straight seasons) was set to undergo a serious hip operation to repair a nagging injury. Obviously a hockey player needs all of his major joints working properly in order to function, but the hip is far and away the most important, as it serves as the power base for all skating and shooting related movements. Ballard spent the summer rehabilitating instead of training, and he came into camp rusty.

For whatever reason, the coaching staff didn’t warm to him like they did Dan Hamhuis. Hamhuis quickly emerged as Vancouver’s most steady defenseman, but he was also given a lot of ice time right away. Ballard was bounced around the depth chart a bit, and he was placed on both the left and right side. Ballard, a left-handed shooter, was far more comfortable and effective on the left side. Few defensemen prefer playing on their off side (Christian Ehrhoff is one), as it is much harder to receive and to make passes out of the zone on the back and. Throughout the 2010-11 season, Ballard played almost 60 percent of his shifts with either Chris Tanev, Andrew Alberts, or Aaron Rome.

Aside from a few strong games, Ballard was a huge disappointment all season long. He stuck out like a sore thumb on many nights, looking lost trying to play in Vancouver’s quick tempo system. Associate coach Rick Bowness has been praised in the past for how he was helped get defensemen to fit in seamlessly within Vancouver’s system – Ehrhoff and Shane O’Brien are great examples. However, he struggled getting Ballard into situations in which he could excel. Alain Vigneault started to healthy scratch Ballard around the midpoint of the season, and he continued doing so right up until the Canucks eventually lost the Cup in June (a classic example of the Ballard mismanagement – he was thrown cold onto the top pairing in Boston during game six of the Cup Final, and he unsurprisingly struggled with the pace of the game).

Ballard’s lack of ice time in Vancouver highlights the lack of trust the coaching staff had in him. In his final season with the Panthers, Ballard played 21 minutes or more 53 times. In his first season in Vancouver, he played 21 minutes or more once.

I firmly believe Ballard still has trade value due to the lack of quality defensemen available and the shortage of puck moving defensemen around the league. However, I think the Canucks owe it to themselves to give him a second look, fresh start, and clean slate this season (especially after a full summer of training and exercise – Ballard is probably the only Canuck who came into the off-season full of energy). How can they do that? Here’s how I would handle Ballard this year, in four steps (assuming he isn’t traded between now and October).

1) I would get Ballard, Bowness, and Vigneault to meet before training camp. I’d get all of the issues out on the table. The coaches don’t like Ballard’s inconsistent gap control. They also don’t like it when he wanders around the ice instead of chipping the puck in deep. Ballard likely feels like his best attributes (skating and passing) are being neutered in a depth role with limited minutes.

2) I would give him a longer leash. Sure, he had his struggles last season, but players need some level of comfort when they are coming to a new team or into a new situation. The Canucks are in win-now mode, but they can afford to let Ballard get his feet wet early in the season. Obviously keeping Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa together, that means Alex Edler likely has to slide over to the right side. Edler played most of the season on the left side with Ehrhoff, but he has played on the right side before. Ballard is a high risk defenseman, and he needs to know that when he makes his end-to-end skates, he won’t get scratched or stapled to the bench if they back fire.

The Canucks could also spread out the defense and put Edler with Sami Salo, but that would once again put Ballard with one of Tanev, Rome, or Alberts, essentially taking us back to square one.

3) I would give him some power play time. Nothing helps build confidence more than putting some points on the board. He doesn’t have a great point shot but he reads the play well and has played the role effectively in both Phoenix and Florida.

4) I would accentuate his strengths. This one seems obvious, but it was ignored last season. Ballard is a great skater, and he sees the ice well. What is the point of having him out there with plodding defensemen and fourth line forwards? Good players generally need good players to play with in order to excel (a notable exception being Sidney Crosby, no offense to Pascal Dupuis). Put Ballard with Edler and the Sedin twins at even strength. Give him prime offensive minutes. Give him time to get used to the role. The team doesn’t really have a choice with this after Ehrhoff left for greener pastures, but it still is something worth mentioning.

Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher made an interesting point during an interview last season. He mentioned how he told his players to spend most of their times on their strengths. He made sure Steven Stamkos would get faster and get his shot harder and more accurate. Often times we get goal scorers trying to work on their defense or their strength. I’m not saying to avoid what you are bad at, but Boucher’s philosophy works with slotting players in the right roles. Your defensive specialists – get them to work on faceoffs, positioning, stick work, that sort of thing. They still have to keep their offensive skills sharp, but work on your strengths first. Michael Grabner is a great example of this – a speedy goal scorer who struggled every single training camp (and was cut from Florida because of this) because he tried to show his defensive game and back checking ability. Let the checkers check, and the scorers score. In Ballard’s case, simply let him play. He has way too much talent to have his career defined by a slash to his own goalie and a fight against Sidney Crosby. That being said…

One of the finest shifts you may ever see out of a defenseman:

 

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Jeff Angus
Jeff can be found on Twitter @AngusCertified.
Jeff Angus

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11 Comments

  1. Great article. I was well beyond any redemption for Ballard, we really needed him last season, and sadly he just was not there. I gave Lou the same consideration, but that is another story.
    I’ve followed Keith’s career and really like him in Florida, was very pleased that we had him on our roster.
    You are right about not giving up on him, he is a good player, just has to find his place. Coming to our market, and system would be a real culture shock. I have been fortunate to sit behind the bench and by all appearances his team-mates seem to really appreciate him. My sense is that AV does not like this guy, and for those he does not, they become bench warmers. It is my hope that they can formulate a plan and see what Keith can do for 2011/2011

  2. The BIG point is that last year he was hurt then not in game shape then concussed. Period. Skills like his don’t disappear without reason. Starting the season in shape and injury free will produce a very different player.

  3. So much fun when everyone thinks they can outcoach an NHL coach. Nobody knows more about Ballard, right now, than Vigneault. There are no personal vendettas, and the short leash he was on was there because there were people playing better behind him. Sure, he was great on Phoenix and Florida, but those team’s are no where near as deep on D than Vancouver. Not even in the same league.

    • Johnny Canuck says:

      Not saying I can outcoach Vigneault, at all. Simply saying I questioned some of the moves he (and Gillis) made last year. And as for the ones I mentioned you have to agree they were questionable at best. These moves I believe cost the Canucks dearly in the end. Considering how much money is being invested into Ballard and the fact that we traded Grabner, who I ad alot of the experts knew would be great, he just needed a chance to play on a line higher then the 4th (Raymond should have been the one made expendable) for a guy just coming off major hip surgery. If you ask any coach (or GM) that has won a cup before, for Ballard’s pricetag its not a gamble many if any would take that wanna win now, not in a few years. As I said if he was making a million a season and he played like he was wearing cement shoes then its no big loss if hes an utter failure (which he was last year). Considering the money and terms I hope Ballard does work out because currently we’d get nothing more then a bag of pucks if we tried to deal him. As I said this season I hope is his last “chance”, if he fully recovers from his hip issues and comes to form then great, I’ll eat my words with a side of hot sauce. If not, then what, we have Dana Murzyn all over again for 3 more wonderful years at a large cap hit. Not a good thing in the cap era

      • Hindsight’s 20/20 on the Grabner trade. Canuck fans would have lost their shit had Raymond, still very young and just coming off a career season, been made expendable. They needed to increase depth on D and they did that. They’ve still got quite a bit of time left with Ballard, too, and you saw the turnarounds Bieksa and most notably Alberts had last year.

  4. Johnny Canuck says:

    We were better off telling AV to lose the ego and wipe the slate clean with Shane O’Brien. The fact that he got cut because of an average and short preseason just makes me further question Canucks coaching staff. The fact that we kept Peter Shaefer over Brendon Morrison because Shaefer scored a goal against CHL and AHL talent in the preseason and Morrison didn’t further questions Canucks coaching decisions. Considering Shaefer was sent down to manitoba within two weeks then went on to play in europe and Morrison had a solid campagin in Calgary, Canucks coaches dropped the ball with that one, big time, but I digress.

    Considering that Ballard is making north of 4 million a season, and Vancouver traded for him knowing he’d have to recover from such a serious procedure once again my faith in vancouver’s coaching staff (and Mike Gillis) is in question. We could have kept O’Brien at 1.6 million who was just starting to come into his own as a defensive defenceman (off ice issues aside). I have no faith in Kieth Ballard and look forward to the day that we trade him for a bag of pucks. maybe if he was making Aaron Rome money I wouldn’t be so critical. But when you’re barely a 6th defenseman quality making top two defenseman money I’m sorry in the cap-era thats not cool at all. This season he better improve leaps and bounds or else i say we give him Sheldon Souray treatment and make him the highest paid Chicago Wolf in history for this season then cut him lose and take his enormous cap hit and use it towards signing Shea Weber. Then we can Forget the Kieth ballard era ever existed

    • Yeah, AV is definately an ego maniac. Ask Bieksa and Alberts how the clean slate was never an option. Losing Shane O’Brien was such a huge loss with how well he played for the predators. Player performance in preseason shouldn’t count for anything. Heck, they should just make up their minds about the roster well before it. Let’s question a team that’s made its way towards one victory of the Stanley Cup. All in all, you post intelligent, insightful analysis of the Canucks!

  5. If you put Ballard with Edler, how does Salo feel about being the no.5 guy after how well he played during the playoffs?

  6. Yeah as a Minnesota Gopher fan I like to root for former players, but Ballard definitely looked lost out there in the cup finals. Tough situation and hopefully he bounces back this year like you said. Nice article.

  7. Actually what makes Grabs special is that not only is he as fast as greased lightning and a potent scorer, but he also is a terrific two way player and penalty killer.

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