Considering that Sami Salo was paired with Kevin Connauton yesterday, it probably isn’t wise to read too much into the duos the Canucks are icing during the early stages of training camp. Still, it’s difficult not to notice that Keith Ballard and Chris Tanev have already been matched up.

Had things gone the way most expected them to last season, this weekend might have been the first time Ballard and Tanev had ever shared a shift. Ballard, “a sure thing,” according to Iain MacIntyre, was expected to be a critical component of the top four. So said Laurence Gilman, shortly after the blueliner was acquired at the 2010 draft:

“He’s a guy who plays in both ends of the rink. He can play on the power play. He’s physical, and he’s an incredibly competitive player. He is, in our minds, a critical component of a competitive, top-four defence.”

Unfortunately for Ballard, he dropped down the depth chart for a number of reasons: first, he was a contingency plan from the outset, insurance in case the Canucks didn’t sign Dan Hamhuis. In explaining the trade, Mike Gillis would admit that it was too risky to rely on free agency to fill the need for a top four defenceman; Ballard was insurance. And, when Dan Hamhuis signed after all, Ballard became an afterthought.

Second, he didn’t play all that well (which probably had more to do with it). Brilliant hipchecks aside, Ballard put in some shaky outings early in the season, and soon he had gone from a critical component to a depth guy, fluctuating between twelve minutes a night in the five/six slot and zero minutes in the seven.

While Ballard was supposed to be a sure thing in the top four, Tanev wasn’t even supposed to be in the NHL. A month earlier, in June of 2010, the young blueliner became only the second RIT player to sign a professional contract.

Tanev wasn’t even sure he wanted to sign with a team yet. With only one year of college under his belt, he briefly considered staying to finish his degree but, according to the Toronto Observer, his Dad’s advice pushed him towards pro hockey:

“The thing I told Christopher was you have to make the decision based on two questions,” Mike Tanev, Chris’ father, said. “Can you go back to school any time you want and is your dream to play in the NHL?”

Most agreed Tanev wasn’t ready for the NHL, including RIT head coach Wayne Wilson. “[Tanev] is a tremendous skater, passer, and has a great feel for the game,” Wilson said. “As Chris gets stronger, he will have a great chance to play in the NHL.”

Wilson, like most, felt Tanev would be an NHLer once he bulked up, a process that only began to take place this summer, when Tanev weighed in at training camp at 190 lbs, 10 more than last season.

According to Derek Jory, Tanev is aware that there’s still a ways to go: “I’m still not crazy strong,” he said, “but I’m stronger than I was in June of last year, so that’s definitely a good sign.”

He’s also more experienced. In June of last year, Tanev was unexpectedly playing in the Stanley Cup Final. Called up to fill in during a rash of injuries, Tanev impressed the Canucks’ coaching staff with his calmness and coolness, and wound up staying with the team for far longer than anyone had expected. Tanev shot up the depth chart like he had shot up the height chart a few years earlier and before he knew it, Alain Vigneault was trusting his collectedness and poise to hold up in a Game 7.

Last season, Tanev’s stock was rising at the same time Ballard’s was dropping. As a result, the two met in the middle, and shared the bottom pairing for much of the back half of the year. Now, with a fresh NHL season giving both a fresh start, Keith Ballard and Chris Tanev are both looking to improve on last year.

Both are fully capable, and the Canucks are likely looking for the unlikely duo to push one another.

Tanev and Ballard aren’t together by accident. They’re paired together because, with Christian Ehrhoff gone, the Canucks are looking for someone to step up, and that someone will likely emerge from this pair.

Keith Ballard and Chris Tanev have the same goal — a spot in the top four — and they’ll be competing against one another directly in order to reach it. That’s a motivated pairing, and if you think it’s either coincidental or inconsequential, you’re out of your mind.

The other pairings may not matter right now. This one does.

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3 comments

  1. Mary
    September 19, 2011

    Thank the hockey gods! Ballard has someone to challenge him and to teach (which I think will help him develop his on-ice confidence) and Tanev has gained a heck of a teacher.

    Also, is anyone else ridiculously excited for the upcoming preseason games? I AM. :)

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  2. Smokey
    September 19, 2011

    The next time Chris Tanev is called for a penalty in the NHL will be the first time.

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  3. peanutflower
    September 20, 2011

    Great article — it is so true. Ballard played well when he was paired with Tanev, and not so well when paired with anyone else. Ballard appeared to thrive on being able to teach or mentor Chris, so if that’s what it takes to get Ballard back where he belongs that’s great, and if that’s what it takes to keep Tanev in the lineup that’s equally great. I never had that scaredy feeling I got when Ehrhoff was in the defensive zone when Tanev was on the ice. He made very few mistakes and has a great first pass. He has great potential and I hope he stays a Canuck for a long time! And I am as ridiculously excited for the game tonight as you are!

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