Marc-Andre Gragnani’s not bad; he’s just misunderstood

Marc-Andre Gragnani is on a three-game point streak, but you wouldn’t know it from the chilly reception he’s receiving of late from the Canucks faithful. To be fair, Gragnani is coming off his worst game as a Canuck on Tuesday against the Ducks. He was on the ice for 3 of the Ducks’ 4 goals and 2 of those goals came as a direct consequence of his defensive gaffes.

It could even be argued that if it weren’t for Gragnani, the Vancouver goalie controversy wouldn’t have been reignited, and the fact that he did it right after Alexander Sulzer posted a three-point night for Buffalo made Gragnani’s performance even more stark.

We weren’t shy about calling him out on his errors either; the errors that he made against the Ducks are the kinds of mistakes that get you benched or sent to the press box, particularly on a team coached by Alain Vigneault, who loves his low-risk, low-event defencemen.

And yet, even after his defensive gaffes, Gragnani played 18:52 against the Ducks, including 1:43 in overtime. While this was still fifth in icetime among Canuck defenceman, he saw a lot more of the sheet than many expected. Some are quick to attribute this to favouritism, as Gragnani was previously coached by Vigneault in Juniors. Many draw a parallel to Keith Ballard and wonder why Gragnani doesn’t get the same treatment for his defensive mistakes.

The reason, as I see it, is a simple one: they’re two different players.

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The Canucks are much fightier than last year: Top 5 fights of the season

A weird thing happened over the weekend: Don Cherry, that great defender of toughness in hockey, actually called the Canucks tough. I’m not joking. It actually happened.

The main (and only) reason that this is significant is that Cherry is the king of the surface-level observation. He seems to look at something once, get an impression, and immediately have a take. If Cherry’s first impression is that the Canucks are a tougher team and that “Boston’s not going to push them around any more” that is a positive for the Canucks, because that means that other teams are getting that same impression. If “toughness” and “Canucks” can be put together in people’s minds more often, that can only benefit the team.

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Drance Numbers: Chris Tanev’s demonic possession

Drance Numbers is the silly research wing of PITB. While Messrs. Wagner and Mooney blog nationally and solve mysteries, Drance Numbers will look into the minutiae of quantifiable NHL data and bore you with it every Friday. Today, Drance looks at Chris Tanev’s legion-like possession skills.

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Canucks’ best shot blocker is heading to the press box

The Canucks announced some great news today: Aaron Rome will be back in the lineup against the St. Louis Blues after missing 12 games with a broken thumb. With Sami Salo still out with a concussion, Rome’s return alleviates some of the concerns regarding the Canucks defensive depth.

Here’s the odd thing: he won’t be replacing Alex Sulzer, who would seem to be the obvious choice. Instead, he’s replacing Keith Ballard.

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Here’s a video of the Canucks paying a visit to Canuck Place to carve pumpkins with the kids. It’s adorable, and I encourage you to watch it, especially if you like things that are exceedingly sweet.

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If you’re a Canuck fan on Twitter, you’ve no doubt noticed the suspicious @Keith_Ballard4 Twitter account that sprung up a few weeks back, but has yet to issue a single tweet.

With the name on the account being what it is, we’ve seen a number of people question whether or not this is the real Keith Ballard. So is it? Probably. While there’s been no verification (primarily because there’s nothing to verify, since the account has just been sitting there), it seems reasonable to assume that this account is legit.

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What is clipping and why does Keith Ballard keep getting called for it?

With Monday morning’s report that Keith Ballard will be a member of the Canucks’ defensive top four for the second game in a row Tuesday (as well that suspicious @Keith_Ballard4 Twitter account that has yet to tweet but is being followed by both Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa), it seems reasonable to assume that we’re going to see a lot more of the hipcheck-happy left side defenseman this season.

And, if that’s the case, knowing Ballard as we do, we should probably get ready to see a few more plays blown down for that rarest of rare penalties the league calls “clipping,” a banned action that, up until last May, many Canuck fans didn’t even know existed.

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Last month, when asked if the Canucks would miss Christian Ehrhoff, Henrik Sedin said no, confidently explaining that the team had other guys capable of taking Ehrhoff’s place. Let’s take a look at what the first game of the regular season tells us about who these guys might be, and how they might be utilized to mitigate Ehrhoff’s departure.

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Part of me wonders if the Canucks decided to only dress the Sedins for one game out of the seven preseason contests they’ve played so far in an attempt to make us miss them. At the end of last season, all Canuck fans could do was grumble about the twins, but after being reminded Wednesday night of how much better they are than anyone else on the team, another game without them was an exercise in dull pain. The Sedinless Canuck team dressed for the penultimate preseason game was about as threatening as a kitten in a felt hat, and nowhere near as adorable.

I ask you, is there anything worse than the realization that you just sat through a three-hour preseason shutout? No. There is only shame, and I feel this shame, because I watched this game.

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The defensive pairings for Wednesday night’s preseason tilt with the Anaheim Ducks have been released, and they are as follows: Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler and Sami Salo, and Chris Tanev with Andrew Alberts. Needless to say, this group bears a strong resemblance to what we can expect to see on opening night. Hamhuis and Bieksa, last season’s standout pair, are back together, and Alex Edler and Sami Salo, the presumed second unit, are paired as well.

But, bearing the implications in mind, there is one suspicious absence from the six-man unit: Keith Ballard, for whom a fresh start was promised. Is this evidence that the promise was somewhat exaggerated?

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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.

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Keith Ballard had a tough first-year in Vancouver. Acquired to add depth and offensive punch to the blueline, Ballard struggled mightily in the regular season, registering a career-low 2 goals and 7 points (14 points below his previous career low). Worse, by game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, he had dropped off the depth chart entirely, as rookie Chris Tanev and a handful of too-hurt-to-play defenders were dressed instead of him. In short, Keith Ballard had a pretty sucky year.

With the loss of Christian Ehrhoff, Ballard appears to have a massive opportunity to redeem himself in 2011-12. After failing to live up to expectations, a rejuvenated Keith Ballard would be like the Canucks finding a top four defenseman in the attic. Alex Edler needs a new best friend, preferably a right-hander with a decent first pass, the ability to join the rush with the Sedins, and some hittiness. Alain Vigneault’s going to need to be convinced, but it’s not entirely impossible, especially if Ballard does the stuff he does in these clips at a rate more in keeping with his career averages. Here’s every goal Keith Ballard scored in 2010-11.

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Third Man In is a feature that reminds the world that PITB actually has three writers and occasionally, that third writer comes flying into the fray with his gloves off, looking for a piece of the action. Usually on Friday. This week, Qris examines why Keith Ballard can’t get out of AV’s doghouse and admits he knows nothing about Marco Sturm.

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Tomas Kaberle and Keith Ballard have a lot in common. Both players spent the post-lockout years playing for non-playoff teams. Both have represented their countries in International play. Both were traded to their current teams for a package including a top prospect and a first round pick. Both have failed to meet expectations with their new teams. And both are in the Stanley Cup Final.

Of course, one of the main differences between the two is that Kaberle will definitely play at least one game against the Canucks, while Ballard might watch all of the games from the press box with the Black Aces. Since no one has come out on record saying he hasn’t wagered away his spot on the Stanley Cup in a rigged game of poker with Eddie Lack, we’re forced to assume he has.

So which of the two has been more disappointing? Who has come shortest of meeting expectations?

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Spitballin’ (or Super Pass It To Bulis: All In, if you love adventurous acronymizing) is a feature that allows us to touch on a multitude of things really fast, because in the world of hockey, there are always lots of things to find and colour. Here are a few topics that deserve mention.

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Just how good is Keith Ballard’s hipcheck on Jamie McGinn? Well, in a game where Henrik Sedin orchestrated a 2-on-1 goal with the unprecented decision to pass the puck through the goaltender’s legs, Ballard’s hit on McGinn still may have been the best play of yesterday’s Game 4. For my money, it is, especially because this isn’t just a regular hipcheck; this is a heady reaction play from the best hipcheck artist on the Canucks, and maybe the NHL.

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Following a tough loss to the Sharks on Friday, the Canucks played this game like they had a lot to prove. After giving up 5 goals on their first five penalty kills in the series, they made sure to take five straight penalties just to prove that they could kill them. Having struggled on 5-on-3 powerplays all season and failing to score on two on Friday, they slyly goaded the Sharks into three such situations just to prove that they could take advantage of them. And finally, to avoid any accusations that they were only winning because the Sharks were choking in the third period, they wanted to prove that they could win a game despite being outscored in the final frame. I, too, had something to prove: could I watch this game? Yes. Yes, I could. It wasn’t that difficult. I’m not even sure why I questioned myself. I watched this game.

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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.

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“For me, my only experience is as a spectator” – Keith Ballard, April 12, 2011

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Some say the hipcheck is a lost art in the NHL, but you’d be hard pressed to find a Vancouver fan that feels this way. The offseason additions of Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis, two defenders that love to hip check, made going wide versus the Canucks a downright dicey proposition. Eventually, even Aaron Rome fell in love with the hit, giving the Canucks three guys who could surprise with a hipcheck at seemingly any moment. The result: perhaps the only team in the NHL for whom the hipcheck was common.

I’m not sure Canucks fans realized how spoiled they were this season. With that in mind, PITB has compiled a countdown of the five finest hipchecks thrown by the boys in blue and green in the 2010-11:

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You might recall from an earlier PITB piece that Ballard is a noted prankster; he just happens to be terrible at it. It’s true. He’s worse than Jeff Bridges. You also might recall that Atlanta, where the Canucks play tonight, is the site of his worst prank ever: a two-handed baseball swing to the mask of Florida goaltender Tomas Vokoun.

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Here’s a little vignette for Fountain Tire and Canucks.com, featuring interviews with Keith Ballard and Ryan Kesler. The best stuff comes courtesy of Ballard, who gives us some insight into why he never gets any ice time. Turns out it’s because: 1) He has scoliosis and borderline osteoporosis.Ballard has every ailment short of bulging discs. [...]

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“I’ve never been more excited about hockey, now that I have this beard.” Canucks news comes fast and furious, and sometimes we find ourselves playing catchup. Thankfully, the Dreaded Two Goal Lead–often called “the worst lead in hockey”–is super easy to come back from. Everybody knows it’s a guaranteed death sentence for those that hold [...]

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Canucks 3 – 2 Blues I feel like we’ve been spouting this statistic a lot lately, but the Canucks still haven’t lost two consecutive regulation games since November. I used to be impressed; now I’m just annoyed. I mean, they keep alternating wins and losses, forcing me to point to this statistic every second game. [...]

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If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a clip of the Keith Ballard injury, via Kukla’s Korner. Last night, during the game, I wondered aloud to my wife if Milan Michalek was guilty of a slewfoot here. Kukla’s Korner asks the same question. Ben Kuzma also asked. Mike Gillis straight up said it was. Let [...]

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