When Kevin Bieksa went down with a groin injury, Andrew Alberts came in to play his first two games of the season. Surprisingly, when he returned, Alberts stayed in the lineup and Keith Ballard came out. Then, when Bieksa couldn’t go against Calgary, Cam Barker drew in to the lineup for his first game of the season, while Ballard remained in the press box.
It’s a decision that doesn’t make a lot of sense on the surface. Ballard is a better player than Alberts and Barker and was playing with newfound consistency to start the season. His pairing with Chris Tanev was playing fairly sheltered minutes, but was getting good results, to the point that he and Tanev remained together when Vigneault and Bowness started juggling defence pairs 5 games in.
That pairing has been split up recently, however, as Tanev has begun to take on a larger role in the Canucks’ defence corps. While Tanev excels, however, Ballard has found his ice time steadily declining and it now appears that Ballard is back at the bottom of the Canucks’ defensive depth chart.
With Bieksa out of the lineup, Tanev is the Canucks’ only natural right-side defenceman. In the last five games, including the game against Nashville when Bieksa was injured, Tanev has played fewer than 19 minutes just once, last game against Calgary. His calm, patient approach to the game has made him an easy fit alongside everyone he plays with. He’s essentially become a top-four defenceman with Bieksa out of the lineup, playing with both Alex Edler and Dan Hamhuis. With how he’s performing, he may stay in the top-four when Bieksa returns, relegating Jason Garrison, who hasn’t been playing poorly by any means, to the bottom pairing.
As Tanev’s ice time has increased, Ballard’s has rapidly decreased.
Where Tanev seems to instantly mesh with whoever he’s paired with, Ballard has struggled to do the same. He played on the right side of a pairing with Alberts, then on the left side. Neither seemed to work particularly well. He and Garrison were briefly paired together, and that seemed to work better, but Vigneault seems intent on using Garrison as more of a shutdown defenceman, a role that he isn’t comfortable entrusting to Ballard.
Looking at his last game before being made a healthy scratch, it becomes a bit more clear why Ballard has lost the trust of his coach in the defensive end. Thomas Drance over at Canucks Army broke down his involvement in the two Coyotes’ goals that were scored while he was on the ice, with his most egregious error coming on the Coyotes’ second goal. Instead of defending the front of the net, where Mikkel Boedker got a clear shot on net off a bad bounce, Ballard followed David Moss behind the net for no discernible reason.
It’s a poor decision by Ballard, but it’s reflective of how he played the entire game. In the defensive zone, Ballard tended to stick with his man at all costs, even when the better choice would have been to defend an area or help out a teammate in trouble. Instead of collapsing to the front of the net on broken plays, Ballard followed his check, no matter how far away from the action he was.
It’s certainly important to know where your check is on the ice, but a big part of playing defence is making smart choices and knowing when to leave your man to make a better play. Ballard frequently needs to simplify his game, but against Phoenix he simplified it too much.
It happened again and again. On an early PK shift, he boxed out a man well away from the goal while the puck went to the opposite side on a back door play. On his next shift, he chased his man to the boards, despite Jordan Schroeder coming down low to cover him, leaving the front of the net wide open for a scoring chance. In a second period shift, it happened to work to his advantage, as his man crashed the net and Ballard stayed with him and was able to clear the rebound. In one of his few third period shifts, he did it again, focussing so much on one man that the area in front of the net was completely clear.
The Coyotes’ second goal came almost exactly halfway through the game. In the first half, Ballard had 8:02 in ice time, well on his way to his average of a little over 16 minutes. In the second half, after the 2-0 goal, Ballard had just 4:47 in ice time. Clearly Vigneault did not like his work on that goal. With three days between games, he would have had plenty of time to look at game tape and would have seen that he played the same way throughout the game and likely in previous games as well.
He would have seen something else as well: Ballard rarely passed the puck out the defensive zone himself. On almost every shift, he played the puck to his defence partner to move it out of the defensive zone. Considering his partner for much of the game was Alberts, that was less than ideal. Of the two, Ballard is meant to be the smooth-skating, puck-moving defenceman. Instead, he relied on his defence partner to move the puck out shift after shift.
This worked just fine when he was briefly reunited with Tanev for a couple shifts in the second period. Both shifts were completely uneventful, as Ballard moved the puck to Tanev, who safely skated the puck out of the defensive zone. Watching those two shifts with zone exits in mind made it clear why Ballard and Tanev were so successful as a tandem.
When Ballard did try to move the puck out himself, he didn’t experience much success. He was tagged with 3 giveaways in the game, with one coming in his very first shift as he impatiently slapped the puck around the boards instead of looking for a better option. The puck was picked off easily. The same thing happened just prior to the Coyotes’ first goal, as Ballard failed to clear the defensive zone when he had the opportunity. The third came as he tried to force a pass through an oncoming forechecker. The puck deflected into the slot for a dangerous scoring chance.
If Vigneault didn’t like Ballard’s work in the defensive zone and Ballard wasn’t able to pass the puck out of the defensive zone, how can you blame him for making Ballard a healthy scratch? Without Tanev at his side, Ballard just isn’t as steady and consistent, but the Canucks need Tanev to be more than a bottom pairing defenceman with Bieksa out of the lineup.
This is tough for me to write, because I like Ballard and I think he’s capable of being better, but after watching his performance against Phoenix, it’s clear why he was sent to the press box. Vigneault put it succinctly: “I thought the other six guys gave us a better chance.”Tags: Chris Tanev, Defensive Depth, Keith Ballard, When Ballard is your seventh defenseman life is actually not that good, When Ballard is your seventh defenseman life is good