Keith Ballard has had some really awful minutes for the Canucks.

That said, so had Christian Ehrhoff. So did Alberts. So did Samuelsson. So did a lot of other guys. Everyone who plays poorly on Alain Vigneault’s Canucks sees his ice time reduced. Most see it climb back up when they play better. Some don’t, though.

The Keith Ballard situation is a controversial one, but it’s clear that he’s been used much less than his salary dictates. Many believe he’s been used less than his ability dictates, as well. Keith Ballard is capable of effectively running a power play, as he did in Florida when Jay Bouwmeester was injured. Of course, he’s also capable of playing very poorly, as he did in Florida after Jay Bouwmeester became a Flame. Ballard has been similarly enigmatic in Vancouver, giving Vigneault plenty of chances to bench him.

But what’s different is, Ballard hasn’t seen much in the way of chances to redeem himself. The guy’s got to have been frustrated when he’s always in a position to lose ice time, but never in a position to get it back. If you compare the amount of leeway a guy like Christian Ehrhoff or Mason Raymond has to the amount of slack cut for Keith Ballard, it seems there’s a striking difference, having little bearing to what happens on the ice. Everyone’s ice time is based on performance, but some guys just can’t seem to get out of the doghouse, and Ballard is one. What gives?

Obviously, no one can know for sure, but there can be signs. Vigneault has put players in the doghouse before, and seems to love certain players. Long before he was a consistent offensive threat, Ryan Kesler was getting consistent power play time. Kyle Wellwood, on the other hand, couldn’t seem to earn an extra shift for much of his tenure as a Canuck. What do these guys have in common?

Being Particular About Their Role

Remember Jan Bulis? He wanted power play time, and threw a fit when he didn’t get it, reportedly wanting a trade. He lost ice time quickly after that. Mathieu Schneider was also upset about never playing the power play, so he never played at all. Kyle Wellwood didn’t like being a checker. Some guys just expect a certain role.

Alain Vigneault believes very strongly in teamwork, and also in his right as a coach to use his players as he chooses. Ryan Kesler never saw himself as a checker, but when Alain Vigneault used him in that role, he embraced it, and was rewarded with offensive opportunities. Alex Burrows has never received an assignment he wasn’t willing to try. Players who do what they’re told have seen their ice time shoot up. Mason Raymond accepted a penalty killing role he didn’t seem suited for, and as a result, has earned a lot of slack, even in times when he hasn’t performed so well. Aaron Rome is also good at doing whatever he’s told.

How does this apply to Keith Ballard? He’s stated a preference for the left side, on a team where the right side isn’t so strong. Most defensemen are more comfortable playing their natural side. By stating his preference, Ballard was limiting Vigneault’s options. Vigneault is the Canucks’ bench boss, which means he often uses the bench to show who’s boss. One way of looking at it is that his comment was innocent and shouldn’t be taken to mean he’s not a team player. The other way is to note that when Shane O’Brien, Kyle Wellwood, Mathieu Schneider or Jan Bulis had problems with their roles, they quickly had problems with their ice time, and Ballard also publicly stated how he’d like to be used — or at least, on which side he’d like to play.

Showing They Aren’t Very Serious

Ryan Kesler is very, very serious. Keslurking aside, he’s a boring interview, and doesn’t take winning or losing lightly. Some players, though, can have fun and still play hockey. Blurring the line between having fun and failing to take the game seriously, though, hasn’t helped anyone under Vigneault.

Matt Cooke was one of the first players Vigneault seemed to have real distaste for. While he was effective under Crawford, Cooke struggled to find ice time under Vigneault. Cooke seemed like the natural replacement for Bertuzzi on a line with Naslund and Morrison, having taken that role during Bert’s suspension. Instead, though, Vigneault played the likes of Bryan Smolinski. Cooke’s on-ice performance was great at times, horrible others, but like Ballard, Cooke couldn’t seem to hold on to the minutes he earned. Also, like Ballard, Cooke is a prankster. Ballard untaped Bieksa’s sticks during game day — perhaps it’s not cool to mess with a teammate’s game day routine.

Kyle Wellwood and Shane O’Brien are both former residents of Alain Vigneault’s doghouse, and both of them were known to joke around a bit during interviews. Wellwood made cracks about how Gretzky never had to work out. O’Brien’s antics were numerous, even during interviews. Ballard also can be funny with his interviews. Check out his deadpan humor in this interview. If he’s bringing the same kind of humor into the locker room, it could be that Vigneault finds the humor misplaced. Remember, Ryan Kesler is not only Vigneault’s favorite player, he’s also Daniel’s candidate for worst interview on the team.

If these gripes seem petty, that’s because they have more to do with attitude than performance on the ice. Still, that’s something Vigneault cares about. Ballard’s probably a great guy and a good team player, and it’s a real bummer that he wound up on Vigneault’s bad side, but if he’s given his coach reason to doubt how seriously he takes the game or his commitment to his team, then you can’t blame the coach for taking attitude into account. The same method that has him arguably underusing the likes of Ballard or O’Brien led to the emergence of Burrows, Kesler and Raymond.

These could be factors that Vigneault takes into account consciously, unconsciously, or not at all, but it seems the residents of his doghouse have some eerie similarities when it comes to their attitudes off the ice.

It’s Not Impossible to Leave the Dog House

Kyle Wellwood eventually embraced his defensive role and earned significant ice time. Jan Bulis eventually became an effective penalty killer. Whatever the reason for being in the dog house, it’s possible for players to leave it and redeem themselves.

It seems Gillis has chosen to keep Ballard on the team, although nothing is certain. If Ballard remains a Canuck, Gillis may expect him to step into a larger role. It’ll be important that he does so effectively. Perhaps the first step on that path would be a demonstrable attitude change, as was the case with Wellwood and Bulis before him. Maybe someone can get his dad on the phone?

Gillis Isn’t Done

Too many Canucks fans are thinking back to July 1, 2010, where Mike Gillis made a big splash in signing Dan Hamhuis and Manny Malhotra. It was a rare instance of instant gratification for Canucks fans, and they expected the same this season.

Unfortunately, this crop of free agents was a lot more like 2009, where the Canucks let Ohlund go, then waited around for two months or so before signing Mathieu Schneider. That’s the comparison folks should be making right now.

Gillis signed Aaron Rome early and then sat tight, leaving many fans guessing, trying to slot Rome into a projected top six defensemen. That was clearly never Gillis’s plan, but the word patience appears more in Gillis’s biography than in Orson Scott Card’s Wyrms. Gillis made the trade to acquire Christian Ehrhoff on August 28th. By then, all the season previews had been written and many fans thought Gillis had failed to make anything happen.

That’s the kind of vibe Canucks fans should be getting this season. Tanev isn’t likely to be part of Gillis’s intended top six. The player’s very talented, but Gillis likes insurance. Alberts, as well, is more likely depth than a top-six guy. A move is likely to come before the season begins, but it won’t necessarily be soon. Gillis could win a staring contest with an escalator. He won’t move until he thinks it’s right.

I Don’t Know Marco Sturm

Some people are really excited to have Marco Sturm joining the Canucks. Maybe they’re right — Samuelsson wasn’t on any Canuck fans’ radar until his contract was announced. Could be the same deal here.

Still, some of Gillis’s signings have failed in the past. Mathieu Schneider is the biggest example, but there are others. Sturm was given a one-year contract because Gillis isn’t sure about this guy. Likewise, neither am I.

On one hand, Sturm has scored 25+ goals three times in his career, could play on any of the top three lines, and could provide some finish the Canucks lacked against Boston. On the other hand, he’s scored more than 50 points only once in his career, is super old,  is likely past his prime, and used to play for Boston.

We can only hope he produces, but if not, he’s easy to get rid of, with a one-year contract. If nothing else, he fills the hole Christian Ehrhoff left, providing the same amount of awkwardness on Remembrance Day.

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7 comments

  1. kim r
    July 8, 2011

    Maybe it’s more about AV and his unwillingness to adapt than Ballard, Wellwood, SOB, etc. Yes, he’s the coach, but AV should be able to get the most out of his players and work with them.

    I’ve never been a big fan of AV, but believe that Gillis knows what he’s doing so fine, but if it were up to me he would have been fired after the playoffs for the simple reason of poor asset management. Not sure why an injured Samuelsson was not rested for the playoffs and why wasn’t Hodgson/Ballard/other pressbox scrub played when there were players seriously injured out there. It wasn’t like they’d play any worse than the rest of the team in the four games they lost in the SCF.

    So AV has an asset management problem and it may have cost them games (imho). If he’s going to hurt the team because *he* has a problem with a perceived lack of seriousness, then maybe it’s *his* problem and should be addressed. If it were up to me, we’d see a new coach in the fall, but it’s not and that might be a good thing!

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  2. Joseph
    July 8, 2011

    @kim r-who in their right mind would fire a coach who lead their team within one win of the Stanley Cup and is a coach of the year candidate? My brain hurts. Didn’t AV have the willingness to adapt a defensive team into a dynamo offensive team? How about adapting to the concept of not giving Luongo a workload in the regular season? Don’t say Wellwood and SOB underperformed under AV because SOB was the Predator’s no.6 defenseman and played awful in this year’s playoffs and Wellwood is looking for work once again this summer.

    AV didn’t have the luxury to rest Samuelsson with Raymond struggling on the second line and no one else on the roster being skilled enough to complement Kesler. Hodgson, Ballard and their depth players did played a lot of minutes when injuries were mounting. The Canucks dressed the most players on any team last year! Ballard was terrible in the finals, probably their worst blueliner out there; couldn’t do anything on both ends. Also, expecting a rookie player in Hodgson to make an impact during the finals is ridiculous. Its a great way to ruin a guy’s confidence, not that its been any lower with him injuring his back and being average in the farm.

    AV is a great coach. He has some flaws, but has shown he can change his style if it helps the team out.

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    • kim r
      July 8, 2011

      Could be here all day rebutting this, but since I’m not of a right mind, I’ll do a short one:

      - They could have done much better in the SCF had asset management been better. Those games in Boston were debacles and why weren’t they better mentally prepared? What happened that all of a sudden they looked like they left their skill at home? One could argue that’s the coaching staff. Many ones have been arguing all year (and past years) that AV gets consistently outcoached.

      - One could also argue that with the players they have, the coach of the year honors is more about the players than the coach.

      - I didn’t say anything about Wellwood’s and SOB’s performance so that’s a nonissue and a strawman discussion.

      - Resting Samuelsson is back to asset management. If a major player is hurt, has been hurt for a while and will continue to play hurt coming into the playoffs and you are well within reaching 1st overall unless you go on a 15 game losing streak, then perhaps it’s time to rest that player. Why this didn’t happen and who’s decision, I have no idea and if I hung this on AV unfairly, then I’ll admit it.

      - We’ll have to agree to disagree on Ballard being terrible in the playoffs. I doubt he could have been worse than Ehrhoff and Edler, both of whom were severely injured in game 7. And to say that he had no confidence, well, why would that be?

      - We’ll have to agree to disagree on Hodgson. At this point, I’d be surprised if he had any confidence after the debacle with his back, lack of decent playing time and lack of coach interest. A shame for a first round pick and, again, my complaint of asset management.

      Now off to find my right mind. The left is lonely.

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  3. jeremy
    July 8, 2011

    So, I appreciate the attempts to sniff out any reasons behind why AV’s got Ballard (the most I’ve seen elsewhere is head scratching, so at least you’re trying to solve the mystery that’s got everyone else stumped!)

    That said, if your conclusion is that Ballard needs an “attitude change” to get out of the dog house, I’m convinced that you’re way off. Your evidence to support this conclusion appears to be an innocuous quote in the semifinals about preference for playing one side, and that he’s a joker.

    Consider:
    1) By the semi-finals, KB’s place in AV’s doghouse was VERY well entrenched. I don’t think quotes from a few weeks before the end of the season can be taken as reason for the previous 8 months of odd coaching decisions.
    2) Ballard may be a jokester, but certainly no less than many of the established guys on the team (Bieksa being the most obvious that comes to mind). One could argue, as you did, that you need to be established before you can be a jokester, and while I don’t believe that his jokesterness has (or ought to have) had any bearing, it’s a legitimate point.
    HOWEVER:
    3) By all accounts, Ballard has had a phenomenal attitude ALL SEASON LONG. He’s consistently been quoted as saying how excited he is to be on a good team, how he’ll play any role required of him to help the team, how he’d rather be on the ice but in Vancouver it’s team first and there’s lots of great defencemen, and so forth. The only time he deviated from that was late in the playoffs, when, after being left in the press box for lesser players, he was asked if he thought the coach had confidence in him and he responded, “I don’t know”. If that’s a guy who needs an attitude change to be good enough for AV, the rest of the crew must be a bunch of psychophants.

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    • Qris Johnson
      July 10, 2011

      The “innocuous quote in the semi-finals” was just from an article during the semi-finals. There’s no way to say whether he’d said the same thing internally much earlier. A willingness to say something like that publicly means he’s probably said it before privately.

      Kevin Bieksa’s been in and out of the doghouse. He played himself out, yeah, but I submit that he clearly takes things seriously. I’ve never seen him give a sarcastic, deadpan interview in the way that Ballard has. Ballard said he was using humor to help fit in to the locker room. It may have hurt him with the coach.

      As to his attitude throughout the season, you get that impression from quotes given to the media. Those are useless. If he’s excited to play here, he’ll say he’s excited to play here. If he’s not happy to be here, he’ll say he’s excited to play here. Fact is, he’s made excuses before in interviews. Remember when he was first benched for Rome? He talked about his hip surgery and concussion and how hard it was to find his stride after. Kyle Wellwood said the same thing coming into the Canucks’ training camp, and Vigneault didn’t seem to sympathize with his plight. Regardless of your evaluation of Ballard’s attitude, it seems Vigneault disagrees.

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      • jeremy
        July 11, 2011

        Qris, you’re a smart guy and a good writer, and I’d love to see Third Man In more regularly on this site. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. A couple thoughts:

        re: innocuous public quotes and things being said privately: Of course he’s stated his preferences privately. That’s what makes teams good: when players are honest about their strengths and weaknesses, coaches can put them in positions to succeed. You don’t think the coaches would actively seek out information about where their players are at their best?

        re: never having seen Bieksa give a sarcastic, deadpan interview: Really? I don’t know if I’ve seen Bieksa do any other kind of interview than sarcastic and deadpan.

        re: quotes being given to media being useless, if that’s your position than I’d say you and i are out of source material. Besides, your proposition rests on a quote being given to media about positional preference.

        re: excuses when first benched for Rome: I don’t remember Ballard making those excuses, but I could be wrong. I DO remember AV & MG making those ‘excuses’ for him, though. I don’t take those as excuses, though: its an admission that he’s not playing well enough to be effective. “I’ve had hip surgery, and haven’t found my stride, so Rome is playing for me” is far from evidence of a bad attitude.

        Finally: “Regardless of your evaluation of Ballard’s attitude, it seems Vigneault disagrees.” I think in that statement you used your theory as evidence for your theory. Specious, I say!

        Ah well. Whatever it is preventing KBallard from being effective (and I’d say it had more to do with a slow start, and the team being stacked with left side Dmen, coupled with Ballard’s high-risk/high-reward style of play leaning too heavily to ‘high risk’ this year), let’s hope he picks it up this year, as he has the skillset to move into the offensive hole Ehrhoff leaves on the blueline.

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  4. Nuckzabest
    July 8, 2011

    Being too loyal has it’s positives and negatives, good thing is you get more out of some players but down side is that it is at the expense of other players development, I think AV is too loyal (especially to his forwards) , see Grabner, see Shirokov, see Hodgson. We should all be second guessing Vignault on his player selection… good coach, but show me the cup…

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