Poor Keith Ballard. Mike Gillis made a big splash in acquiring Ballard at the NHL Entry Draft last summer, paying the steep price of a first round draft pick, Calder candidate Michael Grabner, and Steve Bernier. He and Dan Hamhuis were meant to shore up the defense and allow for the trade of the ill-favored Kevin Bieksa. Ballard was meant to play a big role in the revamped top-four. Instead, Salo got injured, Bieksa stuck around, and Ballard found himself on the third-pairing averaging 16 minutes per game.
Poor Keith Ballard. His first chance to play in the NHL Playoffs and his skates barely touch the ice, averaging 12-and-a-half minutes per game and finding himself in the pressbox for games 5 and 6 in favor of journeymen Aaron Rome and Andrew Alberts. It seemed that the only reason he found himself back on the ice for game 7 was yet another mysterious Sami Salo injury.
Poor Keith Ballard. The Canucks’ playoff record this season with Keith Ballard in the lineup is 4-1. Without Ballard in the lineup: 0-2. And yet, he can’t seem to find his way into Alain Vigneault’s good books.
It’s baffling. Alain Vigneault’s seeming dislike and subsequent benching of Keith Ballard is one of the few decisions by the coach that I just don’t understand. I can see the reasoning behind starting Cory Schneider in game 6. I get the line juggling and it’s resulted in some inspired combinations, such as Burrows with the Sedins and reuniting Kesler and Burrows in round one. I even understand why he likes Aaron Rome, as he is the Platonic ideal of the safe, bank-it-off-the-glass-and-out defenseman. But I do not understand why Keith Ballard gets so few minutes and even gets put in the pressbox. Even with the caveat of playing behind stalwart defensemen like Bieksa, Edler, Ehrhoff, and Hamhuis, Ballard barely gets more icetime than the fourth line.
I don’t like not understanding things. It’s not in my nature to just let something like that slip by without attempting to get a handle on it. So, at the risk of falling victim to a small sample size, let’s take a look at Keith Ballard’s contributions in round one and see why he might have ended up in AV’s doghouse and whether it was justified.
One of the reasons for his lack of icetime is that he gets little to no time on special teams. With Mikael Samuelsson playing the point on the first powerplay unit, that leaves just three spots open for defensemen: Ehrhoff gets preference on the first unit, while Edler and Salo/Bieksa play the second unit. When an opportunity arises for a brief stint for another defenseman, Dan Hamhuis is next in line. Ballard won’t be getting any powerplay time. Still, his shotblocking ability and decent defensive positioning should net him some time on the penalty kill. And it does: he gets an average of 0:26 shorthanded ice time per game, only ahead of Rome and Alberts in that category. Since the Canucks frequently roll out three different penalty-killing units, that’s an awfully low average.
This would seem to indicate that Vigneault just doesn’t trust Ballard. This is borne out by the quality of competition he faced: Ballard had the second lowest Corsi relative Quality of Competition among Canucks defensemen in round one, beating out only Aaron Rome, who played terribly in game 5 and was justifiably used sparingly. At the same time, he was sent out mostly in a defensive role, starting in the defensive zone 54.2% of the time, similar numbers to shutdown pairing Hamhuis and Bieksa. This seems more related to the continued efforts to deploy Ehrhoff and Edler in the offensive zone than any special proclivity towards using Ballard defensively.
So why isn’t he trusted? Oddly enough, in a series in which the Canucks were scored on 22 times, not a single goal was scored against while Ballard was on the ice. On the negative side, not a single goal was scored for the Canucks while Ballard was on the ice. He came out neatly even in plus/minus. His relative Corsi rating tells a bit more of a story than his plus/minus: Ballard was fifth among Canucks defensemen in Relative Corsi. The Canucks were definitely outshot while Ballard was on the ice, though not as badly as when Rome or Alberts played. Part of the blame can be layed at the feet of his starts in the defensive zone and his low quality of teammates (lowest among Canucks defensemen not named Aaron Rome), but the difference is still stark and reflects poorly on Ballard’s ability to move the puck up ice. His relative Corsi during the regular season was similarly poor.
Is this the explanation? Vigneault himself has said that he pays more attention to scoring chances than shot totals, but his Corsi rating does give an indication of his puck possession ability. However, his high percentage of defensive zone starts and low quality of teammates play a role in this as well. Which came first: the poor puck possession or the low-quality situations?
Because Vigneault emphasises scoring chances so much, might that influence Ballard’s ice time? Fortunately, Copper and Blue were fairly diligent in keeping track of the scoring chances in the series between the Canucks and Blackhawks. While they don’t have results for game 3 or 7, there are three games in which we can look at Keith Ballard. The results? Pretty good.
In game 1, the Canucks outchanced the Blackhawks 6-1 when Ballard was on the ice. The only Canucks with better ratios were Sami Salo, who was paired with Ballard, and Daniel Sedin. What’s impressive is that most of those scoring chances were against the Blackhawks’ top two lines. Game 2 is a bit of a different story: the Blackhawks outchanced the Canucks 3-2 when Ballard was on the ice, though only Kevin Bieksa had a positive scoring chance ratio at even-strength among Canucks defensemen.
Game 4 is where one would reasonably expect a poor performance from Ballard. After all, it was after this game that he was sent to the press box to think about what he did. And, since the Canucks got walloped 7-2, you would expect the scoring chances to greatly favor the Blackhawks, which would in turn greatly increase the likelihood of Ballard being severely outchanced. Such is not the case. The Blackhawks did outchance the Canucks when Ballard was on the ice, but only 2-1, with the majority of his teammates sporting far worse ratios. What is most impressive is that Ballard played 1:23 shorthanded and didn’t give up a single scoring chance. He was the only Canuck to play more than a few seconds on the penalty kill and not give up a scoring chance.
So what do we make of this? Ballard’s Corsi rating indicates that his abilities at moving the puck up ice are poor compared to his compatriots, but his ability to limit scoring chances and goals seems to be above average. As mentioned, not a single goal was scored against the Canucks in round one while Ballard was on the ice. To expand the sample size, let’s look at the entire regular season: incredibly, Keith Ballard has given up the fewest goals against per 60 minutes played of any Canucks defenseman. Kevin Bieksa is close, allowing just 0.05 more goals against per 60 minutes against admittedly tougher competition, but Bieksa is receiving lavish praise for his defensive work this season, while Ballard receives time in the press box rather than plaudits.
I confess, I haven’t gotten any closer to discovering why Alain Vigneault refrains from giving icetime to Keith Ballard. In fact, I’m more confused than when I started. But I am convinced that Keith Ballard is a better option on defense than either Aaron Rome or Andrew Alberts and that he is not a liability on the ice. If we judge defensemen on the basis of preventing goals against, Ballard deserves high praise.
Tags: Alain Vigneault should listen to me because I am smart, Ballard, Ballard likes to watch, playoffs, Statistics, Stats