Canucks winging it with Keith Ballard works wonders
Blueliner enjoys challenge of playing forward in a pinch — and giving brain a rest
Keith Ballard of the Vancouver Canucks played forward and defence on the team’s three-game road trip that netted wins in Phoenix, Los Angeles and Colorado. ‘Soon as I switched to wing I turned my brain off, and started complaining to the D,’ he says jokingly.
Photograph by: Jeff Vinnick, NHLI via Getty Images
VANCOUVER — In hockey, no means maybe.
So when Alain Vigneault says no, there isn’t a chance that playing defenceman Keith Ballard on the wing Tuesday for the third time in four games could be part of a long-term solution to the Vancouver Canucks’ lack of forward depth, he means at the moment, that’s not the plan.
But maybe it’s an idea that could grow little wispy roots in the back of the head coach’s mind -- a card to be played again, if necessary, the next time the Canucks get a case of the shorts up front, or just need a general shakeup.
Ballard, you may have heard, set up Alex Burrows’s game-winner Sunday in Denver while playing on a makeshift line centered by Andrew Ebbett.
This, at a time when the defence was already missing Alex Edler and ought to have needed all experienced blueline hands on deck.
Yet Vigneault, even sans Edler, felt he could spare Ballard from the back end and throw him on the wing, where the need was greater.
How to interpret that decision?
That the coach still doesn’t love his defensive game? That he will always be on a short leash here?
Or that it’s a compliment to his versatility?
“You never know. Maybe this is the start of 10 years as a winger,” Ballard said prior to Tuesday’s unsightly pig of a 1-0 shootout win over Columbus, in which nobody set anyone up for anything.
“I don’t know how I wouldn’t enjoy it. It’s been fun. I think the only thing you can do is just embrace it and do the best you can.”
He’s not taking it as a demotion, at least, any more than Burrows, who was re-deployed from the Sedins’ line to the No. 3 unit.
In Burrows’ case, of course, it’s more about being Vigneault’s Mr. Fix-It, a guy who can make any line better and help spread the skill and sandpaper quotient around a bit. He said he has been “super-impressed” with Ballard’s play on the wing, and his attitude.
“First thing is, I really like how he’s handled it right from the get-go: didn’t pout, didn’t think bad about it, just embraced the role, that he was going to go out and make the most of it,” Burrows said. “And that tells you all about his character.”
Ballard’s switch, and sudden popularity as an interviewee, has led to a certain amount of chirping from his teammates, notably (of course) Kevin Bieksa, who did spend a few games on Henrik Sedin’s wing two seasons ago.
“You certainly appreciate how good our D are when he goes up to forward and sees how easy it is,” Bieksa said, making sure Ballard was listening.
“But we have a very selfless team and a team that cares about winning first and foremost. He has given us some really good minutes.”
Ballard is holding his own. Now that he’s a forward, he said, he only wishes the defencemen would move the puck up a little better.
“You know, soon as I switched to wing I turned my brain off, and started complaining to the D -- that’s what forwards do, right?” he joked.
Burrows said he’d hate to try to make the opposite switch in positions.
“On defence, if you get beat it really looks bad on the highlight reel right away,” he said. “If you make a mistake up front, on the wing, there’s always layers in behind you that can save you and the play is going to go unnoticed.”
That doesn’t mean there’s less pressure, though.
“No, that’s kind of a cop-out if you take away the pressure and the responsibility,” Ballard said. “We’re not in peewees or high school or whatever. Everyone’s expected to do their job. It doesn’t mean I’ve got a free pass and can go out there and make mistakes.
“It’s different. You’re responsible for getting back on the backcheck ... and offensive zone shifts are pretty tough. You’re always battling for pucks, you’re always stopping, starting, turning, taking a hit, giving a hit, and then you’ve got to get back real hard.
“I’ve probably gained respect for wingers in how they get pucks out of the zone under pressure with the D-man pinching and knowing they’re going to get hit, and handling a bouncing puck or a rim from a defenceman.”
The first time he was moved to forward, last Thursday in Phoenix, it was because Chris Higgins had tweaked his back at the morning skate. Ballard was back on defence Saturday in the win over L.A., and back up front Sunday.
Against Columbus ... well, he was no worse than anyone else. But the Canucks won, their fifth straight, so there’s that.
The general carnage on the front lines is rather like what traditionally hits the Canucks’ defence: a rash of injuries forcing the club to go way down its organizational depth chart for replacements.
Or in this instance, outside the box.
“The first game I don’t know if they knew what to expect, and I didn’t really, either,” said the 30-year-old from Baudette, Minn. “I was a forward and a D growing up, probably like everybody in this room. When you’re a kid, nothing’s set in stone.
“I think when I was 16 or 17, I was switched to play D more, but I played a little wing in Phoenix, a couple of full games and some here and there.
“It’s been eight years since I’ve lined up as a winger, so it wasn’t really second nature, but I understand the game enough to be able to look at a different position and understand my job and role.”
“He’s a real strong skater so he can get in on the forecheck, he can create turnovers,” said Vigneault, who hasn’t been surprised at Ballard’s adaptation.
“I think as a defenceman you have to know where the forwards are and where they’re supposed to be, to make the outlet passes, so I think for him to make that adjustment ... I don’t want to say defencemen have to be smarter than forwards, but ...” the coach smiled, “I’ve already told him that.”
He may not be Vigneault’s first choice, but Keith Ballard -- for all the white noise that has swirled around him since he was brought here at considerable cost from Florida three years ago -- has not been even remotely a downgrade from many in the revolving cast of professional forwards who have tried their hands on the third line while the coaching staff tap-dances its way through the obstacle course that comes with being a centre-challenged, banged-up team.
“Right now we’re a little short on personnel, and you need guys to step out of their comfort zone, and he’s one of the players we’re asking to do that,” Vigneault said.
Ideally, only for a while. But in a compressed season, hockey is not a game of ideal.
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