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:
#Canucks defenseman Keith Ballard’s agent Ben Hankinson says he will be calling the Canucks today regarding his client.
— News1130 Sports (@News1130Sports) March 4, 2013
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.