Free Keith Ballard

Thomas Drance
March 04 2013 03:18PM

 
Keith Ballard is back in the doghouse following a strong start to the 2013 season.
Andy Marlin/Getty Images North America

For whatever reason, whether it's his relationship with headcoach Alain Vigneault or an inability to fit in with the Canucks' system, Keith Ballard's Vancouver Canucks tenure has been a blackhole. The fleet of foot defenseman with the marvelous hips was acquired prior to the 2010 NHL draft in exchange for Michael Grabner, Steve Bernier and the pick that became Quinton Howden. Since then Keith Ballard has gone from a steady tough-minutes top-four defenseman to a (probably) untradable asset and a likely buyout candidate. It has been a mind-boggling fall from grace, and a borderline inexplicable one.

While Keith Ballard has handled the situation in gamely fashion publicly, it's clear that his latest stint in the pressbox (coming as it did on the heels of a steady first sixteen or so games to start this season) has frustrated the Canucks defenseman. Talking to the folks from News1130, Ballard's agent Ben Hankinson revealed as much on Monday morning, and said that he'd be talking to the Canucks about the situation:

Let's get into it on the other side of the jump.

A couple of weeks ago the Vancouver media was singing Ballard's praises and calling him the "most consistent" of all of Vancouver's defenseman in the early going this season. While such high-falutin praise ignored the particular way Keith Ballard's matchups were being prescribed by Rick Bowness and the Canucks coaching staff, the boast that Vancouver's coaches were comfortable matching up their Keith Ballard, Chris Tanev third-pairing against any of the opposition's forward lines mostly held up under closer scrutiny

Yes, in mid-February it looked like Keith Ballard had turned the corner and might manage to stay in the lineup and be a useful, regular player for the Canucks this season. But then the Canucks got lit up in Detroit, and the Phoenix Coyotes rolled into town.

Up until that fateful game last Tuesday, Ballard was playing sixteen or so minutes per game and performing pretty well against modest competition. In the latter half of that game, however, Ballard found himself stapled to the bench (where he's been all too often during his Canucks tenure). He hasn't been back in the lineup since. So what happened in that game?

By the underlying data, the decision to play the likes of Andrew Alberts and Cam Barker ahead of Keith Ballard is borderline irrational. In terms of the fancy-stats, Keith Ballard has been a relative juggernaut this season (though the second-tier competition he's faced is a major qualifier here). If we look at his defensive coverage in that game against Phoenix however, I think Ballard's return to Vigneault's infamous resort for canines begins to make some sense.

Let's look at Phoenix's first goal that game, scored by Kyle Chipchura who was allowed to walk out all alone in front of Cory Schneider. He had time to set up a three course picnic lunch before propelling the puck past the Canucks goaltender with a backhander that ended up in the attic (where Norman keeps grandma). 

This is a shift where Tippet and Vigneault are both playing fourth-line versus fourth-line - so getting burned for a goal against is particularly inexcusable from a headcoach's perspective. Indeed, check out Alain Vigneault's face when the Sportsnet feed cuts to him following the goal - he looks positively ready to take a bench-minor!

To make matters worse for Ballard, he cleanly loses a puck battle behind the net to Paul Bisonette that directly sets up Chipchura's marker. But the real coverage error on this play isn't Ballard's, rather it's made by Andrew Alberts and Maxim Lapierre. Both players get caught up at the other side of the net as a result of a pick, which opens up an awful lot of space for Chipchura to cruise into.

Now arguably Ballard's lack of awaress in realizing how cleanly his partner and his centreman have been beat by Chipchura is a mistake, but it's not an unforgivable one. That said, his resultant lack of urgency in covering for Lapierre and Alberts in the slot can't have ingratiated him with Vancouver's coaching staff...

Occassional defensive errors happen. That's hockey and lot of this is just variance. After this goal Alain Vigneault blendered up his defensive pairings and Ballard took several shifts with his most regular partner in Chris Tanev, rather than Andrew Alberts over the subsequent fifteen or so minutes of game time. Then this happened:

Any way you slice it: that's really ugly. Maxim Lapierre's gap control (and lazy stick) isn't pretty on this play either, and I'm sure Cory Schneider wishes he could have that one back. Still, I'm not sure what Ballard saw on this play, but he makes a critical anticipatory error and follows David Moss behind his own net. In doing so he vacates the precise lane that Mikkel Boedkker waltzes into and he chased the least dangerous Coyotes player on the ice behind the net in doing so. 

Following these two plays, Keith Ballard found himself on the bench for the balance of the contest against the Coyotes. For the Canucks' next game this past Friday night against the Los Angeles Kings, Ballard was in the pressbox.  Asked why he scratched Ballard on Friday after the game, Vigneault simply said he played the six guys who he thought gave him the best chance to win. There was nothing about giving other guys a chance to see some burn, and nothing about maybe Alberts' size matching up better against the Kings' large forwards. Clearly Ballard wasn't good enough.

Then on Sunday, with Kevin Bieksa drawing back out of the lineup with a groin injury, the Canucks coaching staff gave Cam Barker the nod over Keith Ballard...

By the advanced stats, Ballard is quite clearly the superior option over Cam Barker and Andrew Alberts. It's not even really a question. His WOWY's look okay this season (though Ballard is a negative possession player when separated from Chris Tanev), and he was repeatedly killing it by the chance data as well.

But the way relationships work, sometimes there's a glass-shattered moment or a straw that breaks the camel's back. For a couple of seasons Alain Vigneault preferred to deploy Aaron Rome in "safe minutes" against the bottom-end of opponent's rosters. Rome didn't have Ballard's flash or speed, but he was more dependable in his own end of the rink. After a strong start to the campaign, I have to wonder if these shifts reminded Vigneault and Bowness about why they've been so reluctant to play Ballard during his time in Vancouver.

Two breakdowns in coverage do not make a season. Ballard is still Vancouver's sixth best blue-liner. It's odd and frustrating that Ballard appears to get so little rope from the Canucks coaching staff, I understand that. But I'd wager that three seasons worth of accumulated, unforced coverage errors have probably contributed to this situation as much as any vague personal issues between player and coach.

Sticktap to Wyatt Arndt for his help with this post.

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Thomas Drance lives in Toronto, eats spicy food and writes about hockey. He is an NHL News Editor at theScore, the ex-managing editor of CanucksArmy.com and an opinionated blowhard to boot. You can follow him on twitter @thomasdrance.
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#1 Joel Rifkin
March 04 2013, 03:56PM
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They should give his agent permission to talk to any of the 29 other teams and see if he can find any type of deal at all even a 7th rounder and I'm sure the Canucks would gladly accept it.

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#2 bitterguy
March 04 2013, 04:38PM
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that first goal was not ballards fault. yeah he got beat on the boards but the keystone kops routine by lapierre and alberts is an order of magnitude more responsible for the goal. and what was their punishment for that? lapierre got promoted to the 3rd line and alberts played the next 2 games while ballard was in the press box.

the second goal i'm not sure what ballard was going to do either, it was lapierre getting beat by his man again. if ballard stays in the slot and picks him up then he's leaving his man open for a back door pass around the net.

the whole keith ballard era in vancouver should be the basis for a greek tragedy. he gets blamed more than obama.

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#3 VBS6935
March 04 2013, 05:04PM
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Your analysis of the two examples is on the same level as the coaching decision to bench Ballard if those two examples were the reasons.

I think you have picked a theme and tried to make these examples support it, rather than analyzing the examples with no theme in mind.

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#4 WSA
March 04 2013, 05:32PM
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I can hardly wait for you to dissect the singular errors of Edler, Bieksa, Hamhuis, Garrison, Alberts, Barker, and even precious Tanev......come on man.....let's be fair.

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#6 $4.2M bottom pairing d-man
March 04 2013, 05:41PM
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Sorry, but I don't feel sorry for him.

His 3rd yr in Vancouver and he's never proven to be anything more than a bottom pairing d-man. And he's only proven to be that with a inexperienced 23 yr old by his side (Tanev). Without Tanev, he can't hold his own.

Everyone is crapping all over AV today, like it's somehow his fault Ballard forgot how to play hockey. He's not asked to play against the opponents top lines every night, not asked to log a lot of ice time, not asked to score goals. He's asked to play stable defensive hockey against the opponents 3rd and 4th lines. He hasn't done it. He eats a lot of cap space and can't do what a 23 yr old rookie can do. That pretty much says it all.

But clearly they can't move him cause no one else want that contract. He would have been gone a long time ago if he was moveable.

It's not AVs fault. He's asked to put a lineup out that gives them the best chance to win. And you have to earn it. He never has. Call your agent about that Ballard.

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#7 biznow
March 04 2013, 06:00PM
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VBS6935 wrote:

Your analysis of the two examples is on the same level as the coaching decision to bench Ballard if those two examples were the reasons.

I think you have picked a theme and tried to make these examples support it, rather than analyzing the examples with no theme in mind.

ummm, try providing a reason why you feel that way. At least Drance provided analysis, all you did was fling poo. Damn I hate that. By the general theme of your reply, I'm guessing you're a prominent member of the canucks.com forums.

I agree that these are examples of plays that have landed Ballard in the doghouse again. The only thing I will say, is the way the Canucks D have been playing, you could probably find similar meltdowns from just about every other D-man. That is not a knock on Drance's analysis, its a knock on the Canucks D, and Vigneault's decision to play Barker and Alberts over Ballard. I hope Barker finds his game, and gets back on track in the NHL, I really do, but playing him over Ballard is not just benching Ballard, its a downright slap in the face.

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#8 elvis15
March 04 2013, 06:33PM
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@Thomas Drance

I understood ya Drance. I even reposted a part of this in the crazy thread going on right now on CDC about Ballard's agent talking to Gillis. I've been arguing he isn't more deserving of top minutes than the other guys in the top 4 (top 5 if you include Tanev) but he's been good this year despite that. I'm not sure how the coaches could find him more time than they already have or get him specifically PP time at the expense of at least Hamhuis or Edler.

He'll be our cap casualty for next season, and I just hope we do get offered a deal that will improve us (as Gillis likes to say) rather than having to buy him out. He does deserve to stay in the NHL and get a chance somewhere else.

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#9 DouggieK
March 04 2013, 06:45PM
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Judging by what was posted it makes no sense to play Alberts or Barker over Ballard. Sure he may have made the wrong read on the second play but worse has been done and overlooked (Lapierre was horrible on both plays). My theory is that AV likes to have a whipping boy to keep the other players in line. Unfortunately for KB, he is it. This is manifestly unfair to Ballard and it is probably stunting his career but hey at least he's getting 4.3 million a year to put up with AV's crap.

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#10 Joe Schmuck
March 04 2013, 07:11PM
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AV does not like Ballard because he is not Canadian. He likes Kessler for other reasons. The 'phoenix goal from low in the circle was the Schneider's fault, being from such a deep angle in the circle, any bantam level goalie should have stopped that one. Schneider just plan stunk on that one. If the Canucks want to score more often, they need to learn how to operate around the back door, which is almost always unmanned.

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#11 Wetcoaster
March 04 2013, 08:50PM
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@Joe

Edler isn't Canadian and neither was Erhoff or Salo. Just 2 seasons ago, half of the Canucks D-corps were Europeans

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#12 Wetcoaster
March 04 2013, 08:53PM
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*Top-6 D, not D-corps since Tanev and Alberts aren't Euros. Alberts is an American as well.

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#13 guest
March 04 2013, 11:12PM
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Well, I applaud Wetcoaster for even attempting a response, but the notion that AV favours Canadian players (except for "Kessler") is an idea so asinine that it can only, appropriately enough, come from a schmuck. At least he's self-aware.

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#15 Joe Schmuck
March 05 2013, 05:57AM
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The NHL is clearly pro-Euro players. The NHL has been anti-American since its beginning. End of statement. End of Universe. To deny this is not only asinine, it is ignorance.

I didn't say AV was anti-European, I only said he did not like Ballard because he was not Canadian. Who gets on the team is not AV's call, but who gets on the ice is. Lots of people in hockey believe AV is not objective, and doesn't like Ballard either simply due to personality or because he is not Canadian. AV is French Canadian. To believe that there is no anti-American bias among the FC is downright absurd and blind to the world and how it truly is.

For getting the puck out of the zone, Ballard is the #1 D-man, same is true for stopping rushes before they enter the Canucks D zone. His gap control and lateral skating ability are so far superior to the other D men that he looks like the only D who is a professional. He appears to be the fastest skater on the ice, catching break-aways without the necessity of even getting to top speed. To sit the guy is without warrant or explanation.

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#16 Allen
March 05 2013, 12:27PM
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Disagree with David Moss being the least dangerous player. Moss could have circled around the net and Boedkker could have dished the puck to him for a tap in at the side of the goal.

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#17 J21 (@Jyrki21)
March 05 2013, 02:17PM
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@Joe Schmuck

Uh, to the extent a Québécois would be biased against anyone "just because" (if Gatineau even counts... it's suburban Ottawa and Vigneault has a full-on Ontario hoser accent in English), it would be English Canadians, not Americans.

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#18 J21 (@Jyrki21)
March 05 2013, 02:19PM
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Anyhow, if there is a "straw that broke the camel's back" effect happening leading to Vigneault/Bowness icing an inferior lineup, then it *is* irrational, and does deserve to be criticized. You have to look at what each player brings in absolute terms, not in accordance with some frustr-o-meter based on personal preferences.

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#19 DMJ
March 06 2013, 01:10AM
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I understand that writing, especially sports writing, is challenging. I grant you that concession. However, I watched those two plays repeatedly and if Keith Ballard was to blame for those goals, then your idea of blame seems rather confounding.

"To make matters worse for Ballard, he cleanly loses a puck battle behind the net to Paul Bisonette that directly sets up Chipchura's marker." Really? Bisonette was already in the corner before Ballard getting a dump in play. Bisonette made a smart play by chipping past Ballard to a teammate.

"But the real coverage error on this play isn't Ballard's, rather it's made by Andrew Alberts and Maxim Lapierre. Both players get caught up at the other side of the net as a result of a pick, which opens up an awful lot of space for Chipchura to cruise into." Agreed, although ML blew it and not AA.

"Now arguably Ballard's lack of awaress (sic) in realizing how cleanly his partner and his centreman have been beat by Chipchura is a mistake, but it's not an unforgivable one. That said, his resultant lack of urgency in covering for Lapierre and Alberts in the slot can't have ingratiated him with Vancouver's coaching staff...". Was Ballard supposed to refrain from pinning his man on the boards? Skate behind the net and leave his man free to cut to the net? Skate in front of the net, while somewhat still maintaining control of his man, dive towards Chipchura and poke the puck off him while ML played pinball at the side of the net and AA didn't manhandle a smaller player?

Next goal:

"Any way you slice it: that's really ugly. Maxim Lapierre's gap control (and lazy stick) isn't pretty on this play either, and I'm sure Cory Schneider wishes he could have that one back. Still, I'm not sure what Ballard saw on this play, but he makes a critical anticipatory error and follows David Moss behind his own net (agreed, but he kept his man from going to the front of the net, which is 90% of the time far more dangerous). In doing so he vacates the precise lane that Mikkel Boedkker waltzes into and he chased the least dangerous Coyotes player on the ice behind the net in doing so (that as ML again blowing coverage).

Call it like it is: most coaches have favourites and scapegoats. The leash for Ballard and some others is short and long for some who often appear rather undeserving (Raymond, Bieksa, etc.). That is likely due to AV coaching some in Manitoba. If this squad doesn't win this year or next, the coaching staff will be gone.

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