Defending Keith Ballard

Keith Ballard doing what he does best.
Honestly, was there anything more majestic this season for the Canucks than a Ballard hip check?
(Photo by Darryl Dyck/AP)

Keith Ballard had a tough year. Of that, there is no doubt.

Starting with off-season surgery, Ballard wasn’t quite able to hit his stride in a system and role different than anything he had seen on his two previous teams. With Florida and Phoenix, Ballard was a high-minute, shut-down defenseman and thrived in that role. In Vancouver, he was a bit player on the blue line – a role into which he never did sink his teeth.

So Ballard had a rough go of it. Blocked shots, turnovers, giveaways, constant views from the press box in the playoffs, even as teammates were felled with injuries and suspensions. What do the Canucks do with Keith Ballard?

In my opinion, Keith Ballard got a raw deal from the coaching and management staff. This isn’t meant to be a pity party for Ballard or anything. What this is meant to show is that, despite some of his notably consistent mistakes (giveaways, blocked shots), Keith Ballard actually had a pretty good year as a member of the Vancouver Canucks. No, really. And it’s meant to show that Ballard’s gaffes really were limited to a few correctable areas.

As I roll through some stats here, let me set up the criteria. I looked at the 9 Canucks defensemen who played more than 20 games this season and I only looked at regular season numbers. The 9 players in this comparison are Hamhuis, Bieksa, Ballard, Ehrhoff, Salo, Tanev, Edler, Rome and Alberts. Got it?

Let’s start with those giveaways and blocked shots, the two demons that haunted Ballard throughout the season. Well, it turns out that Ballard was actually third best in giveaways per game, at only 0.431, bested only by rookie and Ballard partner Chris Tanev and Ballard’s nemesis and AV favourite Aaron Rome. As for blocked shots… yeah Ballard was worst on the team at 1.71 blocked shots per game. That said, he was only barely above Edler (at 1.69). So for all the grief that Ballard got for his many blocked shots, was the same amount of angst shown toward Edler? Probably not.

So the issue with Ballard isn’t the raw amount of shots he has blocked, it’s the percentage. In a fantastic article from Cam Charron in March, he points out that Ballard was worst on the team at the percentage of his shots getting blocked, at 46.1%, while only 37.3% of his shots were hitting the target. Not that this is a big secret, but Ballard needs to work heavily on his shot selection. And that would be aided considerably if the defense had a proper plan and system in place. More on that later.

In another article 2 months later, Charron identifies the fact that Ballard had the second lowest percentage of offensive zone starts at only 44.0%. So Ballard was hurt to start the season, had difficulty getting his game back on track, and the coaching staff didn’t put him in a situation to "work out the kinks" and his game continued to suffer. It’s pretty tough to succeed when you start in the O-zone only 44% of the time. Further proof that Ballard was not put in a position to success. From Behind the Net… Ballard had the lowest Quality of Teammates number of any defensemen at -0.129, despite facing tough competition. According to Behind the Net, the average relative Corsi of opposing players that Ballard faced, weighted by head-to-head ice time, was 0.175, fourth amongst Canucks D. So Ballard was facing tough competition and was doing so while playing with the weaket teammates. And he was doing so while starting only 44% of the time in the offensive zone (third lowest on the team). All the while, he played only 13.7 minutes per game, third lowest on the team, ahead of only Tanev and Alberts. This doesn’t sound like a real recipe for success to me.

And yet, despite the fact that Ballard was consistently put into situations where it was difficult to succeed, he was still incredibly effective. Ballard had the lowest Goals Against while on-ice over 60 minutes at only 1.62, and was second in opposing team’s blocked shots over 60 minutes at 15.6. So he was doing his job defensively, that’s for sure.

Not only was he doing his job defensively, but he was doing his part to get his team the advantage on special teams. Ballard was second on the team in team penalties drawn over 60 minutes at 4.9, meaning that he was on-ice when the opposition took a penalty. When he was on-ice for a Canucks penalty call, over 60 minutes it happened 3.9 times (which was average on the team). The difference, in penalties drawn vs penalties taken, is the key. At +1.0, he was team-best meaning that, when Ballard was on the ice, the Canucks drew more penalties than they took. At individual level, Ballard was again a team-best at drawing penalties over 60 minutes at 1.1, and only took 0.7 penalties per 60 minutes. Again, this gave Ballard the best individual differential on the team among defensemen, meaning that he PERSONALLY drew more penalties than he took. In fact, there were ONLY two Canucks defensemen that drew more penalties than he took. Ballard and his partner, Tanev. Every other defenseman had a negative number.

The conclusion that I draw from all of this is that Ballard did many, many things right. Many things that defensemen are expected to do right. His biggest flaw is his huge tendancy to have his shots blocked. To me, under a better defensive system, this is easily correctable and something that the team should work with Alex Edler to fix as well. If the Canucks had a more regimented system for their defense, if they had schemes to use in certain situations, if they had better set plays to run from the blueline, Ballard would likely benefit more than any other Canucks defenseman. It is because of this that I am, once again (just like I did last year), calling for the Canucks to replace Rick Bowness. We know that the Canucks forwards have a system, they have a plan, they have a scheme. We know that the special teams have plans and we know that both the PK and PP were both magic this year. But the defense, in my view, has no system whatsoever. And this was finally exposed by the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final, when it finally mattered most. What plan do the Canucks have in place to work the puck of their own zone? What plan do they have for working the puck from one D to another? What plan do they have to work in the corners? What plan do they have at 5-on-5 to work pucks from the blue line to their forwards, without having shots blocked? From what I saw this season, they don’t have one.

For Keith Ballard to succeed, which I FULLY believe that he can and will, he needs to work on a different method for getting shots to his forwards or on net. This isn’t new, and this isn’t limited to Keith Ballard. I think the entire defensive corps should be working on the same thing. Which means that the Canucks need to get Bowness to get his defensemen to work in a more regimented system, or they need to find an Assistant Coach for the defense who will implement such a system.

They have an offense that works in a defined system. They have special teams that work in a defined system. They have goaltending that works in a defined system. So where is the system for the defense?

I know one other person who must be asking the same thing: Keith Ballard.