What Will the Canucks Do With Keith Ballard?

Jeff Angus
January 24 2013 10:24AM

When the Canucks originally acquired Keith Ballard back at the 2010 NHL Draft, a lot of people in Vancouver were thrilled about the move (myself included).

Throughout his time with Phoenix and Florida, Ballard had proven himself to be a capable top four defenseman known for his excellent skating and ability to jump up into the rush (as well as his ability to nearly decapitate teammates, unfortunately).

Mike Gillis was looking to construct a defensive group based on sound defensive play, mobility, and offensive prowess on all three pairings. On paper, Ballard seemed like a natural fit and a suitable replacement for Willie Mitchell or Kevin Bieksa (who was involved in just about every possible trade rumour that summer) on Vancouver’s back end.

However, Ballard’s time in Vancouver has been marked by injuries, inconsistent play, and limited opportunities to do much of anything on the ice. Assuming Ballard isn’t given top four minutes this season (and unless a few injuries strike, expect him to remain on the bottom pairing), what will the Canucks do with him this coming summer? He has two years left on his current contract (a $4.2 million cap hit).

Option #1 – Keep Him

Of the three options (the other two are below), this is the least likely outcome in my estimation. At $4.2 million, Ballard is simply too expensive for a number five or six defenseman, especially in light of the recent extension given to Alex Edler ($5 million per for the next six years after this one). I could see the Canucks rolling with a top six of Edler, Bieksa, Garrison, Hamhuis, Tanev, and Kevin Connauton next season (or a similarly priced veteran defenseman in Connauton’s spot).

If Ballard has a strong season in 2013 with the Canucks, it wouldn’t be completely out of the question for him to stick around. It would be a lot of money to pay for a defenseman, but there likely wouldn’t be a ton of options available through trade or free agency that would represent a significant upgrade at a reduced cost.

And by all accounts he is well-liked in the dressing room – the Canucks really pride themselves on having a team that is self-policing. What I mean by that is that Alain Vigneault doesn’t micromanage like many other coaches around the league. They let the players run the dressing room, and those that don’t fall in line often find their way out of town (Shane O’Brien, as an example).

Keeping Ballard around would also mean more of this:

And this:

Option #2 – Trade Him

Even with the NHL salary cap set to drop from $70 million to $64.3 million in 2013-14, Ballard should carry some trade value. He is 30 years old and has two years left on a reasonable contract for a top four defenseman (assuming teams out there still consider him top-four calibre). Some of the reasons why Ballard hasn’t fit in with the Canucks may not limit his ability to play 20+ minutes a night elsewhere (he averaged well over 20 minutes per game during his time with the Panthers, and he was their best defenseman during the 2008-09 season).

Ballard is a great skater, but he isn’t a great passer (especially on the breakout). The Canucks require their defensemen to be able to quickly move the puck up the ice – Hamhuis and Edler in particular are really good at outlet passes. Some teams allow their defensemen more freedom to skate the puck into the offensive zone with regularity (Florida, for example, when Ballard played there). Ballard also can’t play the right side, and the Canucks are set on the left side for the foreseeable future with Hamhuis, Garrison (and Edler, frankly) locked in as top four defensemen at LD. A team looking for a second pairing left side defenseman may have some interest in Ballard and it wouldn’t take a ton to acquire him.

However, with how little Ballard has played in Vancouver the past couple of seasons, it is possible that he's got "negative trade value" and the Canucks would need to part with additional assets in order to move his contract. 

Option #3 – Buy Him Out

And if the Canucks are unable to move Ballard in a trade, the compliance buyout is the most likely outcome. With two years and $8.4 million left on his deal, Ballard is eligible to be bought out (a player must make over $3 million per season). The Canucks, unlike most NHL clubs, don’t really have a “bad” contract on the roster. Ballard is overpaid for what he brings to the table, but he is still a solid NHL defenseman (or was). And he is the most logical candidate if the Canucks choose to use one or both of the buyouts each club is granted from the NHL.

Whatever happens with Ballard, it has been unfortunate that he hasn’t been able to do more with the Canucks. At the very least, he has quietly become one of the best interviews on the team, thanks to his dry and self-deprecating sense of humour.

Some examples:

And we saw flashes of his dynamic offensive ability, but in a depth role he wasn’t able to truly show his full capabilities:

I wrote a similar piece on Ballard almost two years ago, and not a whole lot has changed since then.

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.

It goes to show how important pro scouting is. The Canucks may have misevaluated Ballard and how he could fit into their system. And in the process, they traded away a good young player in Michael Grabner, a 1st round pick and allowed Willie Mitchell to walk. Oh, and they traded Steve Bernier, too, but whatever.

I have no qualms with the team keeping Ballard for this season. We see it every year – the Canucks need to have at least nine or 10 capable defensemen on the depth chart. Ballard has never earned the full confidence of Vigneault, and he has likely lost some confidence in his own abilities, but there may be a time when the team will need him to step up.

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Jeff shares his Canuck-related thoughts with the Army a few times per week. His work can also be found over at DobberHockey.com, as well as his personal blog, AngusCertified.com. Give him a follow on Twitter @anguscertified.
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#1 Josh
January 24 2013, 11:47AM
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I think the worst part about Ballard is the price we paid to get him. If I am correct it was a 1st round pick, Grabner and (less concerning) Bernier.

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#2 Rasmus
January 24 2013, 12:05PM
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Always hoped Ballard would fit in. Funny guy, seems like he's well liked in the room, but his contract is too much to pay a 3rd pairing d man. Not sure what they'll do with him. On the plus side he seems to have some chemistry with Tanev, and hopefully the kid can learn from Ballard while he's still around.

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#3 Fy Virani
January 24 2013, 12:58PM
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I was of the understanding that compliance buyouts in the summer did not have a minimum monetary amount attached to them?

I could be wrong as I haven't looked into the issue at great length. I believe only the expediency buyouts had a minimum amount attached to them.

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#5 Harold Snepts' Moustache
January 24 2013, 02:30PM
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Great article. I would have done that trade again (ok, maybe not with the 1st rounder - I'd push for a 2nd).

At that point Gillis didn't know whether he was going to land Hamhuis, and at the end of the day got him and Ballard meaning a stacked D-line.

Ballard's creds were good, Grabner wasn't doing anything (and he's up and down now), and it was worth it for a goaltender-out building strategy.

I like Ballard and hope he does well for the 'nucks this year, thereby increasing his trade value as well!

There's lots of teams looking for experienced D and doesn't make sense to trade him during the year - but in the offseason, moving him, convincing Malhotra to jump into a coaching role, and getting a young, hungry 3rd line centre and 4th line winger would help things quite a bit.

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#6 eric blacha
January 24 2013, 02:39PM
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I think that Ballard has looked more comfortable these few games than ever before. I've liked his game, Tanev and Ballard look like a great pairing but the 4.2 just is becoming too much. How do these buyouts work? Can a team buy out, then sign a new contract? I'd assume not, but I'd like to keep Ballard around.

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#7 Tanev
January 25 2013, 01:00AM
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I think on some level, everyone feels for Ballard. They associate him as always being in AVs doghouse. But people don't get there by mistake, AV gives his players a long leash (yes, I know - call 911). Ballard simply hasn't earned it.

I really like the tanev-ballard pairing, only cause I like Tanev with anyone. He's an exceptional support d-man, he could make Cam Barker look like Drew Doughty. But when Tanev was with Chicago last season, you could see the flaws with Ballard. There are bound to be a million teams looking for d-men this yr (due to injuries), he has to have some trade value due to a small supply.

Personally, I am really looking forward to a Connauton-Tanev pairing next season. That will be gold - they mesh very well together. And their cap hits will probably be $2.5M total.

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#8 5minutesinthebox
February 01 2013, 10:20AM
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You lost me when you stated Edler had a good outlet pass. Edler has been horrendous in his own end and is a turnover machine. Ballard has been (an I have been very critical of Ballard play) our best defencemen is the early going on this season. Now, to be clear, I give a lot of credit to Tanev (who has been phenomenal) as his partner. But having a partner who fits your playing style is half of a good pairing (obviously). Tanev is smart, cool, and collected, rarely makes a mistake, and always seems to be in the right place at the right time. The perfect yin to Ballards speedy, physical, and sometimes mistimed jump into the play. Ballard is not the offensively gifted defencemen he (and many in these parts) give him credit for. But his speed does create open ice for his team mates, and I love his physical presence and tenacity to not take $hit from anyone. Its too bad about the number that connected to that contract of his, he just seems to finally have found his groove. I know injury and getting used to a new system played into his inability to get minutes for himself, but you certainly cant blame AV (and many do) for his shortcomings.

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#9 5minutesinthebox
February 01 2013, 10:20AM
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You lost me when you stated Edler had a good outlet pass. Edler has been horrendous in his own end and is a turnover machine. Ballard has been (an I have been very critical of Ballard play) our best defencemen is the early going on this season. Now, to be clear, I give a lot of credit to Tanev (who has been phenomenal) as his partner. But having a partner who fits your playing style is half of a good pairing (obviously). Tanev is smart, cool, and collected, rarely makes a mistake, and always seems to be in the right place at the right time. The perfect yin to Ballards speedy, physical, and sometimes mistimed jump into the play. Ballard is not the offensively gifted defencemen he (and many in these parts) give him credit for. But his speed does create open ice for his team mates, and I love his physical presence and tenacity to not take $hit from anyone. Its too bad about the number that connected to that contract of his, he just seems to finally have found his groove. I know injury and getting used to a new system played into his inability to get minutes for himself, but you certainly cant blame AV (and many do) for his shortcomings.

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#10 5minutesinthebox
February 01 2013, 10:32AM
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Josh wrote:

I think the worst part about Ballard is the price we paid to get him. If I am correct it was a 1st round pick, Grabner and (less concerning) Bernier.

You are correct it was a 1st,Bernier and Grabner. The 1st was the 25th overall (so quite nearly a 2nd round pick - which Florida turned into Howdon, who seems like a good player, but is a long way off from being an NHL reg), Grabner was waived for being lazy and out of shape, and we all know Berniers story.

We made the trade with Florida and the only thing that Florida still has is a prospect. Grabner quite nearly ended his own career in the NHL, and is inconsistent at his best, and a defensive liabilty.

Hind site always makes it easy to make the right decision after it has been made, but Gillis acquired one of the most sought after available defencemen to address our needs.

Sometimes things dont go as planned, just the nature of the business, and you cant blame the management for Ballards shortcomings.

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