Bold Moves: The Keith Ballard Trade

Photo Credit: Jeff Vinnick via NHLI/Getty

This hockey season for the first time in his tenure as General Manager, Mike Gillis is beginning to feel some heat in the Vancouver sports market. Since he was first hired back in 2008, he’s largely been immune to critcism and mostly that’s for good reason. He’s nailed the details, racked up one of the best win/loss records in the NHL and his team made it all the way to game seven of the Stanley Cup Final. In doing so, he’s built up a fair bit of capital on the "good will" front.

But that capital is evaporating as quickly as Vancouver’s strangehold on the Northwest Division. Part of the reason that the court of public opinion has slowly begun to turn against Mike Gillis is, in part, that for the first season since 2008-09 Vancouver’s PDO (PDO is the sum of a team’s shooting percentage and save percentage, and functions as a shorthand measurement of puck luck) isn’t two standard deviations above the mean. 

But it’s his performance on the trade market where the criticism of Mike Gillis begins to really pick up some urgency. This week we’ll profile four "bold moves" that Mike Gillis has made over the past three seasons. We’ll point out the particular areas where Mike Gillis has spent his "good will" and invested in a handful of assets from whom he’s recouped a limited return so far. That series begins today with the Keith Ballard trade. Read past the jump.


A lot of times when hockey writers evaluate trades years after the fact they focus in on "which team won the deal!" That’s fair enough in a results driven business like professional hockey, but it also lends the writer the critical tool of hindsight. Hindsight is a supremely unfair advantage that the folks who cover hockey have over the General Manager’s they’re evaluating.

I’m more interested in (WAIT, HERE IT COMES) the process behind the decision making. Acquiring an NHL player is a lot like betting before you’ve seen the river card in poker in that you make a calculated risk based on limited information. To that end Canucks Assistant General Manager Laurence Gilman, talking about advanced statistics and how they can better inform management decisions with Elliotte Friedman, recently dropped the following quote:

"But believe me when I tell you there are percentage results that allow you to coach and manage your team to hedge bets in certain events."

Throughout this series and in this take today too, we’ll liberally deploy gambling analogies because that’s in effect what a bold move is. It’s a calculated risk.

Sometimes you make the right bet and your opponent hits an ace on the river and you’ll lose the hand anyway. Over the long-term though, you’re still playing the game the right way and your luck will even out. All of this is a long-winded way of expressing the notion that criticizing an executive for making the right bet seems silly.

The Cost

In the case of the Keith Ballard trade, Mike Gillis made the right bet and lost. And he didn’t just lose, he lost spectacularly. This was a bold move that misfired enormously, especially when you consider that the Keith Ballard trade cost the Canucks a top-line scorer, a legitimate NHL grinder, a first round pick and (indirectly) a quality top-four defenseman.

That quality top-four defenseman I’m talking about? That would be recent Stanley Cup winner and tough minutes bad-ass Willie Mitchell. The top-line scorer? That’s Michael Grabner, who was subsequently waived by the Florida Panthers. The legitimate NHL grinder is obviously Steve Bernier, and the first round pick became Quinton Howden who is only having an alright AHL rookie season with the San Antonio Rampage. He’s certainly a prospect but he doesn’t really project as more than a bottom-six forward at the NHL level at this point.

That was the full cost of acquiring Keith Ballard who has played 137 games with the Canucks over three seasons, and hasn’t played very well. He’s dealt with a variety of injuries including a concussion in the latter half of the 2011-12 season and he’s been a frequent supper guest in Alain Vigneault’s puppy motel.

Any way you slice it, that’s an indefensibly meagre return on the treausure Mike Gillis spent to acquire Keith Ballard.

The Bet

That Keith Ballard would fit so poorly into Alain Vigneault’s system in Vancouver, however, was an unpredictable event. For three seasons prior to joining the Canucks, Ballard was a steady top-four defenseman. He soaked up the most difficult minutes for the Coyotes and the Panthers, starting an ungodly number number of shifts in the defensive end on some pretty awful teams. While Ballard didn’t quite come out ahead by the possession data, he held his own and managed to produce offense at a reasonable rate considering his usage. 

He also almost never missed a game, had a reputation as a big hitter and was among the fastest pure skaters among all NHL defenseman (still is, actually).

The Context

At the time of the Keith Ballard trade, Mike Gillis and the Canucks were coming off of a season in which injuries ravaged their defense-corps and ultimately sabotaged the club’s chances in the postseason. Willie Mitchell was concussed by Evgeni Malkin mid-way through that season, Sami Salo missed his standard fourteen games, and Kevin Bieksa missed twenty-seven games that year too. The Canucks used eleven defenseman that season including Brad Lukowich, Evan Oberg and Nolan Baumgartner and were so desperate for blue-line depth that they traded for Andrew Alberts at the deadline…

By the time the Canucks were sputtering against the Blackhawks in the the second of three straight playoff series’ between the two rivals, they were playing Shane O’Brien in their top-four (on the left side of Christian Ehrhoff). Sami Salo took a Duncan Keith slapper to the balls that series and injuries forced Alex Edler out of the lineup in the deciding game six. 

Another critical contextual data point? Henrik Sedin had just completed his best season as a professional, winning the Hart Trophy and the Art Ross, and he was a couple of months away from turning thirty years old. His success was suggestive of two big picture ideas: the first was that the Canucks could score with anybody in the league, and the second was that the core of this team maybe had a chance to go all the way.

As such it was imperative that next season’s team possesses a deeper blue-line, one better suited to withstand the grind of an 82 game season and (hopefully) a long run through the playoffs. Also, it was critical to add puck-moving type defenseman to help key the attack.

Willie Mitchell is one hell of a defenseman, but the fact remains that the Canucks were a better team in 2009-10 after he went out with injury. With Christian Ehrhoff and Alex Edler soaking up Willie Mitchell’s minutes, the Canucks became a more dangerous vertical club, their offense improved and so did their possession numbers.

There’s a great Dave Tippett quote about "types" of defenseman and the "defensive defenseman" fallacy that Corey Sznajder recently used in an article over at Hockey Prospectus about zone-exits. I think it’s applicable here too:

We had a player that was supposed to be a great, shutdown defenseman. He was supposedly the be-all, end-all of defensemen. But when you did a 10-game analysis of him, you found out he was defending all the time because he can’t move the puck. Then we had another guy, who supposedly couldn’t defend a lick. Well, he was defending only 20 percent of the time because he’s making good plays out of our end. He may not be the strongest defender, but he’s only doing it 20 percent of the time. So the equation works out better the other way. I ended up trading the other defenseman."

That summer Mike Gillis clearly placed a premium on speed.

But he also put a premium on "durability" and he went out and acquired two steady defenseman in their mid-to-late twenties with wheels and virtually no injury history. Those two defenseman were Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis. Meanwhile the chronically injured Willie MItchell was jettisoned and signed a lucrative deal with the Los Angeles Kings.

Average number of games played per season between 2005-06 and 2009-10:

Defenseman Average GP 2005-2010
Dan Hamhuis 80.6
Keith Ballard 79.4
Willie Mitchell 68.8

The Outcome

Keith Ballard: among the league’s most expensive third pairing defenseman.
Photo Credit: Jeff Vinnick

From a post on this subject that I wrote this past summer:

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.

Needless to say the Keith Ballard trade hasn’t worked out for the Canucks. But Mike Gillis’ efforts to stack the deck along his blueline were, in my view, founded on solid reasoning and evidence. Meanwhile Dean Lombardi (the Kings general manager) took a massive risk in committing two years and seven million to the oft-injured Mitchell, who at the time was coming off of a concussion so severe he often was unable to attend games in the press box.

This is an illustrative contrast, I think, because Dean Lombardi chased a straight and it hit. Mike Gillis meanwhile bet on pocket kings when a Queen was the high-card on the table – only to have an ace come up on the river.

I’m not writing this to defend Mike Gillis. There’s no way around it: the Keith Ballard trade was an abject failure for the General Manager and his club. I’m writing this because a lot of the criticism of Mike Gillis that I’ve read of late misses the point, or doesn’t seem to understand the nature of his "bold moves" and how exactly they’ve failed.

Keith Ballard hasn’t worked out in Vancouver – like, at all – and is all but sure to be the subject of a swift compliance buyout this summer. That this has happened while Willie Mitchell played 90+ games last season for a team that won the cup and Michael Grabner had scored at a dizzying rate on Long Island just rubs salt in that wound and makes the deal look even worse in retrospect.

You can judge Mike Gillis to have erred in his judgement on the Keith Ballard acquisition, and I’d wager that he’d admit it himself (though probably not on the record). But the decision making process that led to this trade still strikes me as defensible, even sensible. I think that’s worth keeping in mind as Mike Gillis’ trade record is scrutinized ad nauseum over the next eight days in the lead up to this season’s trade deadline.

  • KleptoKlown

    Gillis made the Ballard trade before signing Hamhius did he not? The Canucks were desperate for D that year, and overpaid accordingly. Even when the trade happened, before the benefit of retrospect, most people were able to see that the Canucks gave up too much for Ballard.

    That being said, imagine the Canucks losing Mitchell to the Kings, Hamhius resigning with the Preds, and Gillis not making the Ballard trade…Canucks D would have been more laughable than the current Oilers.

  • elvis15

    Frankly, even given how the Ballard trade has panned out, it was a good deal in that it got Steve ‘stone hands’ Bernier and his $2.5m caphit off the books. Using Grabner as an asset was a smart move too, given that he turned waiver-eligible that summer, and would probably not have cracked the roster.

    Of course, if we have to give up an asset to get Ballard out of town this summer (or do the same to move Booth on because we use our buyout on Ballard), then the deal starts to look pretty bad… but of course, whether that’s directly Gillis’ fault is debatable.

  • JCDavies


    Ballard didn’t cost the Canucks Grabner; he was already gone. Ballard cost the Canucks what they could have gotten for him in a different trade, which may not have been very much.

    You could add to your cost section, the “big chuck of salary cap space” Ballard gobbled up. Sort of like an opportunity cost.

    Hopefully hockey analytics in the future will better predict which players will fit into which systems. Perhaps in the future, teams will see this sort of thing coming.

    Excellent post btw.

  • JCDavies

    Nice try ;

    However, your bias in favor of AV leaves significant holes in your argument.

    1.The Nux had no clue what they were giving away in Grabner because he wasn’t give a chance in Vancouver (AV)

    2. Most importantly, The Nux never found out if they had a top 4 D. in Ballard, as He simply HAS not been given the opportunity in Vancouver.

    The facts are clear, AV was unable to integrate the skills Ballard had/have in order to improve the team.

    This IS what intelligent coaches do. Instead,
    the ignorant Vancouver market blames the player? Surely, the coach’s role is to guide the player in this process.And at the very least give him a chance!

    Let me be crystal clear. It is not the case that Ballard WAS given a fair chance & didn’t perform. This is another sign of the coaches inadequacies/arrogance that ARE apparent to a growing number of knowledgeable observers & limit the teams success.

    3. AV & Willie had a history (Wikki & other sources confirm this)

    4. I can accept your argument about the Nux pursuit of speed & puck moving/better possession teams. This is a very good point.

    HOWEVER, it is very apparent by hockey anyalitics that Ehrhoff WAS a vital component in this approach. (I said it at the time) Yet Gillis (with the Sedins & Av’s influence) did not resign him! This single decision marks a clear & sudden shift in the philosophy by the Nux. Gillis MUST be heavily criticized for this change of direction.

    ***And, my two points are intertwined. The change of style of play has impacted on the role/benefit Ballard could bring.
    It is as if Gillis & Av have had a 7 yr battle on how to play & AV has won?! IMO it is disgraceful.

    It is easy to imagine Ballard right now excelling in the Blackhawks as their 3rd or 4th D ..moving puck quickly and NOT expected to lay big hits (chi leads league on net hits allowed)

    In fact the whole organization now believes the way to win a cup is strong goaltending (overrated) -tight D & protecting/laying back on 1 goal leads (recipe for a disaster)

    How could an org. that is supposed to be so forward thinking fall into this trap?

    To summarize: Av inadequacies/decisions has played a huge role in the failure of Ballard

    And, Gillis (along with AV)and their decision to shift the teams philosophy away from aggressive puck moving D (see Chi this yr) & back to playing safe … have significantly lowered the chances of Nux future success.

    • JCDavies

      Your ability to simplify a fairly complicated situation into an AV problem is impressive.

      Signing Ehrhoff to the contract Buffalo signed him to probably would have been a mistake in the long run.

  • elvis15

    While I agree to an extent that the trade was a flop I think its more the cap hit than anything else.

    Ballard is over paid. If he was making 3-3.5 it wouldn’t be an issue. At 4.2 he isn’t worth especially when players take a pay cut to play in Vancouver.

    Ballard is a decent d-man and actually not a bad forward. I wouldn’t expect to see him bought out. If anyone other than Luongo gets bought out its gonna be Booth. Booth so far has been a way bigger flop than Ballard, gets paid a little more and contract ends the same time.

  • JCDavies

    Ballard was ruined by AV’s mancrush on Rome. I bet my bottom dollar that after a couple months on a new team to get his swagger back Ballard will be a top 4 again.

    Time for AV to move on, not GMMG.

  • Squibbles

    Pretty sure Graber has said on the record that being waived in florida was a wakeup call that he needed. If he had stayed in Vancouver or even if Florida hadn’t waived him he might never have been that top line goal scorer he turned in to.

    He’s also slowed down some. Yeah he got 34 goals in his first year on the island but only 20 on the next year (good for a second liner I guess?).

  • JCDavies

    As soon as I found out about the trade, I was all over GM MG. I hated this trade from day one.

    We finally has a forward draft pick who was not only looking like he had serious potential on offense, but was vastly improved without the puck and was getting better all the time.

    I’m surprised with none of the success Grabner has had, I maintain it was a stupid trade then and it remains one now. This is hindsight only in the sense that I feel even more validated in my criticism of this deal.

    The ironic part about all this is that in the finals the year after the Canucks traded Grabner away, it wasn’t the defense that needed bolstering but an extremely depleted forward corps. Ballard didn’t factor into that series at all.

  • JCDavies

    Dude you seriously have a hate on for Ballard so bad that its getting hard to read your articles. You just called Bernier legitimate. Sorry, did you even watch him play here?
    Ballard is doing great this season despite getting screwed on playing opportunities, the hate wagon needs to stop.

    • JCDavies

      In the writer’s defense. I don’t believe he has ‘hate’ on for KB. It is just he (and others) are going to such extremes to protect & defend AV.

      The results is articles like this one.

      The facts are simple & clear.
      Ballard has never been given a chance to perform.
      (Neither had Grabner)

      Until this point is answered there isn’t any worth then moving forward.