This post requires you to take a moment and consider an alternate reality.
It requires you to step back and allow yourself to consider a player without any preconceptions, to consider what talents a player has and then to make a judgment on his position. There’s no consideration for a player’s salary, or how he was acquired. This is simply about talent.
Ok, you ready?
Let’s go talk about Keith Ballard, NHL forward.
Keith Ballard has been an NHL hockey player since 2005. Keith Ballard is now 30 years old.
This is a player who knows the game at the highest level. He’s been a key defencemen for some crap teams; he’s been a bit defenceman for some excellent teams. Word is, he’s the kind of guy who says he’d rather play down the pecking order for a winning team than top of the order for a loser.
In other words, he’s got the right attitude. If you were ever to look at changing a player’s position, at age 30, while he’s still in the NHL, it would be such a player.
From the Vancouver Sun:
"I love it," he said. "It’s fun, it’s just different, right. It’s a different challenge. You’ve got a bit different responsibility. I don’t know how long it’s for, but I am fine with it."
Ballard was forced into offensive duty for the second time in the last three games due to a shoulder injury to winger Dale Weise.
"I feel fine, there’s a few tweaks here and there," Ballard said of his comfort level on the wing. "There were a few times when it’s not a natural instinct as far as positioning. You have to take a step back and think about it a bit. I have been asking a lot of questions to Burr and Ebbie and those guys have been helping quite a bit."
Hard to argue with that. From his past interviews, there’s no doubting Ballard’s status as a witty, intelligent guy. Asking a player to try something new, this is your guy.
There aren’t many examples from the past to point to, where a player has changed positions. We know about the odd depth defenceman being asked to skate on the fourth line – Andrew Alberts has done so, guys like Ian Moran have done so – but the cases of a non-depth player moving from forward to defence or vice versa is rare.
More than a decade ago, Scotty Bowman started playing Sergei Federov, on occasion, as a defenceman. Bowman’s rationale was that Federov, one of the supreme talents of his generation, had become bored and needed a new challenge.
Federov thrived with the challenge, playing heaps of it to end off the 1997 season, often paired with Larry Murphy. While he was mostly back at his natural centre possession for the playoffs, this happened in the same year that the Wings raced to their first Stanley Cup victory in more than 40 years. Federov would play some defence again for each subsequent team that he played for, a testament to the talent that he held.
The previous famous case of a player switching roles is Red Kelly’s. A star defenceman for the Red Wings during the late 1950s, Kelly concealed an injury from general manager Jack Adams who responded by trading Kelly away. After forcing Adams to turn down a move to the Rangers – Kelly threatened to retire, which would have scuttled the deal – Kelly landed with the Leafs. Punch Imlach immediately said ‘let’s play you at centre’ and no one batted an eye. Kelly is credited with taking Frank Mahovlich’s game to a whole new level, launching the career of the ‘The Big M’ into the stratosphere.
Now, is Keith Ballard a Red Kelly or Sergei Fedorov or even a Dustin Byfuglien? No, he isn’t. But he’s still a top-quality NHL hockey player. That means he has talent. Taking a regular shift means that he knows enough about the game to be successful at it.
So why not try him in a new spot? So much about coaching is identifying what a player *can* do as much as what they *can’t*. I long thought it was odd that older, defensively sound players like Trevor Linden weren’t tried out as defencemen. A player of this ilk knows how to read the game, how to anticipate and has strength to boot. Going the other way, from defence to forward asks a different set of questions. Is the player a good puck handler? Does he read the game well? Is he an excellent skater. Of those three, Ballard excels at two and is at worst ‘passable’ at the other.
It’s not the craziest idea in the world.
Keith Ballard can skate. He’s a pretty good passer too. He’s scored in the past, so there’s no reason to think he’ll stop doing that.
But learning to play the boards and how to forecheck are skills that require work and discipline. Forechecking, as Jannik Hansen has shown us, is about hockey sense, about how to cut off angles and use your speed at just the right time.
That takes some practice. It won’t come right away. But as a concept, playing Keith Ballard as a winger makes a whole lot of sense.