Murphy on Canucks: Ballard better than you think

Keith Ballard has not asked the Canucks for a trade and has accepted his role in Vancouver. (CP/Jonathan Hayward)

Let me start by saying this: I like Keith Ballard. He’s friendly, he’s humble, he’s down to earth, he’s funny and he seems like a really genuine guy.

He’s also a good hockey player. If I was the head coach of the Vancouver Canucks I would have him slotted number six on the depth chart.

And you know what? That’s where the current head coach of the Canucks has him slotted as well. Yes Alain Vigneault scratched Ballard in favour of Andrew Alberts and Cam Barker in recent games, but the fact remains that after he plays in Tuesday’s game against the Sharks, Ballard will have sat just two of Vancouver’s twenty-two games while Alberts and Barker will have played just two of twenty-two each. So I don’t want to hear any garbage that Ballard is suddenly eighth on the depth chart.

There is a real sentiment amongst Canucks fans that Vigneault has mistreated Ballard. That Vigneault is harder on him than the other Canucks defencemen. That Vigneault will let Edler make error after error without holding him accountable while Ballard isn’t afforded the same leeway. Once Ballard makes a mistake or two the head coach will yank him from the lineup to pay for his sins.

That theory is not all that far off base, but that’s the deal when you’re the sixth guy on the depth chart. Edler plays bigger minutes against the opposition’s top players so he’s obviously going to have a longer leash. It’s no different in Vancouver than it is anywhere else in the NHL. Yes Vigneault could handle the situation better at times. When Ballard was scratched for the LA game, Vigneault’s reason was that he was going with the six guys that gave his team the best chance to win. He didn’t have to be so blunt with his assessment. He could have softened his answer so Ballard sitting wouldn’t have blown up into such a big story.

How hard would it have been to say that Alberts had waited too long to get into a game so it was time to incorporate him into the lineup? That too would have been an honest answer but Vigneault chose to throw Ballard under the bus a bit. The fact is that the coaching staff thought Ballard’s play had dipped in the games leading up to him being a scratch (illustrated well in blogs by Daniel Wagner and Thomas Drance) and they had to get Alberts and or Barker into a game at some point.

Imagine if the Canucks were lucky enough to use just six defencemen for the rest of the season but then lost one to injury a couple of games into the playoffs? The same people bashing Vigneualt now for not playing Ballard would be carving him a new one for not playing the other two so they would be somewhat ready to step in. Vigneault would be shredded for not preparing for that situation. You know it’s true.

Vigneault does not make decisions to try to lose hockey games. He does what he feels is best for the team and if it doesn’t work out than ultimately he must be held accountable. If Ballard’s play dips a bit then Alberts or Barker should get a crack. If the Canucks want a more physical element in the lineup then Alberts should play.

The fact that Ballard makes $4.2 million doesn’t mean squat to the head coach and nor should it. Fans bringing up Ballard’s salary as the reason he should be playing over Alberts is ridiculous. If it were all about salary than Alberts would be playing over Chris Tanev and Cory Schneider would never get a start over Roberto Luongo. So stop it with that nonsense.

I’m cheering for Keith Ballard. I want him to play well and keep his spot in the lineup. The last few seasons in Vancouver have not been easy on him. He spoke to the media for a good 20 minutes following Tuesday’s morning skate to re-iterate that. He went from being a top guy in Florida playing 25 minutes a night to a bubble guy in Vancouver. Until he arrived in Vancouver he had always been the go-to guy. He was out there when his team was up a goal or down a goal. He was out there when his team was on the power play or on the penalty kill. He was counted on as a difference maker in all situations and that hasn’t been the case for Ballard since he joined the Canucks. That would be a tough adjustment for any player to make.

Ballard is a better player now than he was two seasons ago. He’s more comfortable in his role and far more confident on the ice. He says Vancouver feels like home and he doesn’t want to leave. When asked if he felt he could reach his full potential as an NHL defenceman with this team Ballard took a long time before answering, “I’ve never really thought about that.” But he was quick to add that playing a limited role on a winning team is more enjoyable than playing an extensive role on a losing one. Something he did in both Phoenix and Florida.

And when he says he’s mentally tougher than he’s ever been it’s easy to understand why. Maybe that’s the only thing he has to thank Vigneault for.

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