Keith Ballard was terrible in Game Four of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Formerly a healthy scratch, Ballard was pressed into action thanks to the Aaron Rome suspension. His play justified his prior scratching. In just over 15 minutes of ice time, Ballard was -2 and a contributor to both the goals scored against him – particularly the Marchand marker where he was comically stripped of the puck behind his own net by Patrice Bergeron.
Everyone has a bad game now and then. But Ballard, remember, had been a healthy scratch in favor of Rome and Andrew Alberts during the post-season (and sometimes during the regular season), both of whom are basically fringe NHLers. In light of his complete implosion this season, Alain Vigneault (and Canucks fans in general) must be wondering why Mike Gillis bothered to acquire Ballard in the first place, to say nothing of the price he paid for him (first round pick in 2010, Steve Bernier and Michael Grabner). Grabner’s 30-goal season for the Islanders makes the deal seem unpalatable enough, even before one considers that Ballard’s sudden albatross of a contract extends until 2014-15 with an annual cap hit of $4.25M.
The truth is, Ballard has been a tough minutes option for just about every year before landing in Vancouver. A former 11th overall pick of the Buffalo Sabres, Ballard put in three very solid seasons in College hockey before turning pro, including a 12 goal, 41 point season for the University of Minnesota in his sophomore year. He spent a single season in the AHL before leaping into the NHL for good in 2005-06. scoring eight goals and 39 points in what was an impressive debut on a lackluster squad. In 2006-07, Ballard was already a top-end option for the Coyotes, finishing with the third most average minutes per game behind Zbynek Michalek and Derek Morris, including a team high 3:44 per game on the penalty kill. He was just 24-years old at the time.
Ballard continued to see tougher minutes in Phoenix, before he was sent to Florida in the Olli Jokinen trade. Ballard again would slide into the top-four rotation, initially below Jay Bouwmeester on the depth chart, but then stepping in and taking over top-pairing, shut-down duties once Bouwmeester signed in Calgary. In 2009-10, only Bryan McCabe saw more ice that Ballard and that was only due to McCabe’s much higher number of minutes on the PP. Ballard started way more often in the defensive end that year and saw some of the toughest match-ups on the team.
In short, when Mike Gillis traded for Keith Ballard, he was ostensibly getting a proven top-four defender who had averaged more than 20 minutes a night since his sophomore season and spent most of his NHL career facing top-six opposition. Ballard had never put up eye-popping totals or underlying numbers (in fact he got beat up in terms of possession in 2009-10…but so did everyone in Florida), but he had at least seemingly kept his head above water. Not to mention more than one coach in the past had trusted him in difficult situations. Players get that trust rarely from NHL coaches, even when they play on less than great squads.
His fall from grace under AV has therefore been a precipitous one, particularly given the fact that Ballard is just 29-years old. His big contract at the time of the trade didn’t seem like the best bet to provide tremendous value going forward, but it at least promised to be moderately worthwhile.
Like bad games, sometimes players have bad seasons. Ballard didn’t suffer from unfair bounces this season (sporting a PDO of 101.3), so variance didn’t play a role in his perceived failings. Whatever the cause, if he can somehow rebound in Tanguay-like fashion next year, perhaps Gillis and company won’t have to seriously consider buying him out.