On Injuries, Luck, Keith Ballard and Willie Mitchell

Who wasn’t happy to see Willie Mitchell hoist the mug this past June?

In professional hockey, an extremely physical sport played by quasi-armored players who use literal blades for locomotion, injuries are an everyday challenge at any level.

With the exception of the Minnesota Wild, hockey folks (players, coaches, executives and fans) are usually reluctant to use injuries as an excuse for a team’s success or failure, but needless to say, an untimely injury can sink a team’s fortunes. In the case of the Los Angeles Kings, the reverse is also true, and a team can accrue an extraordinary competitive advantage if they’re able to defy the odds and stay healthy.

Read on past the jump.

I found this tidbit from Elliotte Friedman’s indispensible Thirty Thoughts column last week particularly interesting, as it touches on a topic I’ve wanted to write about for some time:

The Kings became the first champion to use only six defencemen the entire playoffs since the 1980 New York Islanders. When you’re that healthy and that consistent, you’re laughing.

One of those six remarkably healthy Los Angeles Kings defenseman, of course, was ex-Canuck and BC native Willie Mitchell. Willie Mitchell plays a particularly rough-and-tumble style of hockey, he’s an old-school "stay-at-home" type: a plodding defenseman who excels because of his veteran savvy and raw physical size and strength. Partly as a result of his style of play, partly as a result of bad luck, and partly because Evgeni Malkin is quietly among the league’s dirtiest players, Mitchell has spent a fair amount of time on the shelf during the course of his NHL career.

In his final season in Vancouver, Willie Mitchell missed nearly half of the season with a concussion. It was the latest chapter in the team’s storied history of being completely and totally unable to remain healthy along the blueline. That year, the Canucks went into the postseason without Mitchell, then Sami Salo took a Duncan Keith slapper in the testicles (he played the next game, but was rendered relatively immobile), and then Alex Edler went down with an injury in game 6. The 2010 Blackhawks were a juggernaut, but the rash of Canucks blueliner injuries hastened the inevitable as Vancouver lost in six games. By the end of the series, Shane O’Brien was playing top-four minutes.

That summer, the Canucks went out to stack the deck and beat the odds. At the NHL draft, Mike Gillis traded for Keith Ballard, and a week later, he acquired Dan Hamhuis on the open market. Both players in direct contrast with Willie Mitchell, had a remarkable history of durability. Here’s the average number of games played in the five previous seasons heading into the 2010-11 campaign:

Defenseman Average GP 05-2010
Dan Hamhuis 80.6
Keith Ballard 79.4
Willie Mitchell 68.8

The Canucks made an offer to Willie Mitchell that summer, once he was medically cleared, but by all reports they weren’t even in the same ballpark as Dean Lombardi and the Los Angeles Kings who signed Willie Mitchell to a two year deal worth 7 million dollars.

At the time, most sensible folks thought that contract was incredibly risky, they thought that Willie Mitchell no longer "fit" in Vancouver anyway, and that Mike Gillis had made the right call to walk away from the fan-favorite. The Canucks decided to get younger, and hypothetically more durable while pushing the pace with a speedy blue-line: enter Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis, exit Willie Mitchell. In retrospect, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’d rather pay Keith Ballard (4.2 million per season) than Willie Mitchell (3.5 million).

Beyond their durability, Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard have something else in common that seperates them from Willie Mitchell: high-end skating ability. Willie Mitchell has a good deal of useful skills, but his speed and offensive ability are sub-average for a top-4 NHL defenseman. Yes, Mitchell played second unit power-play minutes for the Kings this past season, but the Kings power-play was atrocious and Mitchell hit a career high in points with 24. Prior to arriving in Vancouver, Ballard had averaged roughly 30 points per season over the five seasons previous. 

Unfortunately, the best laid plans of mice and GMs often go awry. The case of choosing Keith Ballard over Willie Mitchell is, without question, a perfect example. As a team, the Canucks improved by the underlying numbers after Willie Mitchell went out with his injury in 2009-10. With the Sedins beginning to produce at a super-elite level, the team became more "offense oriented" than the low-scoring Alain Vigneault teams that preceded the Mike Gillis era, and on which Willie Mitchell was a key lynchpin. Factor in Willie Mitchell’s concussion struggles, and allowing him to walk in favour of Keith Ballard – a plus-plus skater who had faced tough competition and put up points consistently in his career – was a no brainer. 

It was a "no brainer" that didn’t work out, to put it mildly. In 2010-11, Willie Mitchell gave the Kings what most expected: he was troubled by injuries, only dressed for 57 games and projected as an excellent depth defender, and reasonably solid top-four guy. Keith Ballard, however, was a disaster in Vancouver. His inability to play the right side meant he never really found a home in the top-4, and he was ultimately passed on the depth chart by all of: Aaron Rome, Chris Tanev and Andrew Alberts. When Dan Hamhuis went down with a groin inury in game one of the Stanley Cup Final, Alain Vigneault turned to Rome. When Rome was suspended, Keith Ballard finally got his chance, but he misplayed a puck behind the net in Vancouver’s end in the second period, the Bruins scored on the play and Ballard wasn’t seen on the ice again in the series. Think Willie Mitchell may have done better?

This past season, Keith Ballard – the younger man with the history of being durable – missed much of the season with a concussion, while Willie Mitchell, who was thought to be "finished" and had managed to play only two full seasons in his entire career previously: suited up for 96 games including playoffs. Needless to say, he played some excellent defensive hockey and was a critical contributor in a top-four role on a Stanley Cup winning team.

Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland A’s spoke at a Yahoo! event this past March and suggested that, "teams staying healthy represent the new undervalued asset in the industry." Quoth Beane: "Health is the No. 1 indicator of success, and nobody’s really solved it yet. When somebody really gets their arms around that, it’s going to have a major impact."

Until someone does figure that out, the closest you’re going to get is being damn lucky. The Kings were, both with Willie Mitchell, and the all around health of their blueline this past Spring. The Canucks on the other hand, have seemingly been unable to ever catch a break on this score, despite all their analytical work on fatigue.

"Upgrading" from Willie Mitchell to Keith Ballard was absolutely the right decision based on the available evidence at the time, but it backfired in a big way. Not only has Willie Mitchell significantly outperformed Ballard over the past two seasons, but Michael Grabner (part of the price Gillis paid to acquire Ballard) has evolved into a legitimate top-line scorer. Bad luck is a cruel mistress.

  • TeddyTurnbuckle

    Sorry but Michael Grabner is no better than Mason Raymond, he had 30+ pts last season, Mason Raymond had 20+ pts in 50 games, and in past seasons he had 30+ and 50+, Grabner also had 50+ in his Rookie year.

    They are very similar and I would want neither on a 2nd line unless they can put 50 pts down each year consistently.

  • TeddyTurnbuckle

    Yeah Grabner really backfired on them.. The guy flukes out a 30g season and Mason Raymond still brings more to a team then him with his back injury. And not one mention of Ehrhoff? Some selective arguing going on here. Ballard and Ehrhoff added with Hamhuis > Ohlund Mitchell and those slow footed Canuck D’s that were getting danced around. Have to factor in the style of reffing and obstruction being allowed as well. Good for Willie for coming back from injury but I think the puck moving direction was necessary. Ballard can still fit in and showed promise with his mentor Tanev near the end.

  • @KingLuongo Ehrhoff was brought in, in the summer of 09 – so he wasn’t relevant to the decisions made in the summer of 2010. But you’re right, there was a larger trend at play here, and I probably should’ve credited Ehrhoff’s success with igniting this particular, and I agree, worthwhile change in defensive philosophy.

    That said Grabner scored at a higher/60 rate last season than Daniel Sedin! He’s been at 1.43 + again over 1 goals/60 the past two seasons, putting him in the top-sixty which makes him a top-line scorer in my view (even though I’m not sure he’s a perennial 30 goal guy).

    • Grabner also plays a lot of tough minutes, with the primo offensive minutes going to Tavares. He’s better than just his points indicate. Last season he started only 42% of his shifts in the offensive zone and still managed to move the puck in the right direction against decent competition.

      He was third among forwards on his team for PK time per game, and gets about four times less PP time than Tavares does while Tavares kills no penalties.