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:
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.
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.