Canucks trade away first-round pick in deal for Ballard



LOS ANGELES — The Vancouver Canucks will come home from the National Hockey League entry draft without a first-round selection but with a player who can help them immediately.

Canucks general manager Mike Gillis on Friday traded his only selection in the first three rounds, the 25th spot in the first round, to the Florida Panthers to get rugged defenceman Keith Ballard in a multi-component deal.

Solid Canucks prospect Michael Grabner and enigmatic winger Steve Bernier were also packaged to acquire Ballard and forward prospect Victor Oreskovich.

“What we liked was a puck-moving defenceman at the right age who’s signed for (four) years,” Gillis said of Ballard on TSN.

“We’re not finished yet,” he said of further possible changes. “We’re going to look at every free agent who comes out.”

News of the trade seeped out with the media as the draft started, but the deal wasn’t announced until it was the Canucks’ turn to pick because Vancouver had the option of using it for one of two pre-determined players, then sending their 2011 first-rounder to Florida.

When the two draft prospects the Canucks coveted were claimed by other teams within the preceding five picks, Gillis included his 2010 selection to conclude the deal.

In Ballard, the Canucks get a fierce, decently skilled competitor capable of playing against the other team’s top line. He is probably the replacement for shutdown defenceman Willie Mitchell, who heads to free agency July 1 clouded by a head injury that caused him to miss the second half of the season.

Ballard, 27, always seemed to be prominent against the Canucks when he played in the Western Conference for the Phoenix Coyotes before a trade two years ago sent him to Florida.

But Ballard is a third or fourth defenceman, not a top two. And for him, Gillis is paying a steep price, in dollars and in assets.

Ballard with make $4.2 million US for each of the next four seasons, which is probably about where his value would be as a free agent. But he wasn’t a free agent. The Canucks surrendered a first-round pick and one of their better prospects in Grabner, a first-round selection in 2006.

Friday’s trade may prove to be good for the Canucks, but it looked devastating to the amateur scouting staff who put in thousands of hours to prepare for Friday’s first round.

Still, Ballard fills a vital need on defence. Mitchell doesn’t plan to skate until mid-July and is unlikely to return to the Canucks, and Vancouver defencemen Sami Salo, Kevin Bieksa and Christian Ehrhoff are eligible to leave as unrestricted free agents after next season.

Neither the Canucks nor their fans will miss Bernier, a frustrating power forward who managed only 26 goals in 140 games for Vancouver over two seasons. It was only two years ago that Gillis gave the Buffalo Sabres second- and third-round picks to get Bernier, a first-round pick of San Jose’s in 2003.

The Sabres will use the Canucks’ second-round pick Saturday, when Rounds 2-7 of the draft will be conducted here. The Canucks have no pick until the fourth round.

Ballard, five-foot-11 and 208 pounds, had 28 points and 88 penalty minutes in 82 games last season, which he finished minus-seven. In five NHL seasons, his best offensive year was his rookie campaign, when he had 39 points.

Oreskovich, a 23-year-old former second-round pick, had six points in 50 games last season as a rookie in Florida and at this point appears to be little more than a warm body.

The 22-year-old Grabner, who was one of the fastest skaters in the Canuck organization, had 11 points in 20 NHL games last year and was finally showing signs he belonged in Vancouver. Bernier, 25, had 22 points in 59 games.

Vancouver Sun

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