Ballard excited to play in big hockey market

Keith Ballard of the Florida Panthers hits Zach Parise of the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on December 11, 2009 in Newark, New Jersey.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Keith Ballard of the Florida Panthers hits Zach Parise of the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on December 11, 2009 in Newark, New Jersey.

Jason Botchford, Canwest News Service · Sunday, Jun. 27, 2010

LOS ANGELES — In a cabin on a lake, just outside Minneapolis, Keith Ballard is relaxing Sunday with his wife and their seven-week-old daughter. They are enjoying some serenity.

The quiet is nice. In the summer, anyway.

As for hockey season, Ballard is sick of the peace, not to mention the indifferent fans and bad teams. He wants pressure.

Well, he’s going to the right place.

In his five years in the National Hockey League, Ballard has never made the playoffs. His best year offensively was his first and his worst year overall was his fifth.

These things trouble him. He’s ready for change.

“I want to play where there is pressure every night,” Ballard said from his cabin. “It’s a fish bowl (in Vancouver), where everyone is watching and everyone is into it. I’m very excited for that. I’m ready for it. I’ve spent five years in non-traditional hockey markets. For me, this change will be really good. I think it will help me.

“I think it can fuel my game. I’ve been thinking about every time I’ve played in Vancouver. The place is packed. It’s loud. I love it. It’s something I am really looking forward to.”

The Canucks are looking forward to it, too. Vancouver is high on Ballard, a top-four defenceman who is faster, more durable and dependable than say, Kevin Bieksa. He makes Vancouver better and does it instantly. The Canucks did or didn’t give up a lot to get him, depending on whom you talk to.

They did surrender a first-round pick, but only after their scouts determined there wasn’t a prospect on the board worth taking. In addition, they lost Michael Grabner, but convinced the Florida Panthers to take on Steve Bernier and his $2-million US salary.

Grabner is the only asset of real value the Canucks coughed up, but for all his promise and hypnotizing speed, he is the Canucks’ fourth-best prospect behind Cody Hodgson, Jordan Schroeder and Cory Schneider. There will be angst about what kind of player he will become, but he had nowhere to play in the Canucks lineup in 2010-11 and became, as GM Mike Gillis pointed out, redundant.

What Vancouver didn’t need in Grabner — another soft goal-scorer — they did need in Ballard. He’s a blue-liner who can kill penalties, move pucks, play the power play and chew up 22 minutes a night.

The price for Ballard could be hefty, but not in what the Canucks gave up, rather in what the club will have to pay out. Ballard, 27, is the Canucks’ highest-paid defenceman. He has five years remaining on a deal which pays him $4.2 million US a year. That’s a pricey figure, especially if Ballard is never much more than the mid-range player his critics claim him to be.

Even if that’s the case, in acquiring Ballard, the Canucks get the top-four defenceman they desperately need and they finally get Bernier off the power play. Both instantly make Alain Vigneault a better coach.

The trade leaves the Canucks with a top four of Ballard, Alex Edler, Sami Salo and Christian Ehrhoff. It slides Bieksa to No. 5 and means the blue-line improved from last year even if the team strikes out in attempts to sign another quality defenceman on, and after, July 1.

What does it mean for Ballard?

“I see opportunity,” he said “You are surrounded by great players every day (in Vancouver). For me, just the opportunity to play with them not only in games but in practice is big. And it’s going to be interesting to see what it can do for me.”

For the past two seasons, Ballard has averaged 31 points in Florida, which plays a passive system that saw only one player record 60 points. Ballard is moving to the highest-scoring defence in the NHL, and that’s been by design more than personnel. It should benefit Ballard, and in turn the Canucks.

“I think I can contribute more,” he said. “My first season, I had my best offensive season. I definitely have thought there’s more room there. But at the same time, I don’t want the number of points I get to define me or my seasons. It’s nice, and everyone likes to get points, but I won’t base how I’m playing on whether or not I’m getting points.”

Ballard said he was disappointed how he played last season and maybe spending his five-year career playing for bad teams in Phoenix and Florida was starting to get to him.

“I just didn’t have that good a year. It was a frustrating year. It’s been five years, and I haven’t been in the playoffs yet. It’s something I’m looking forward to,” he said. “When you are getting traded, it’s out of your control on where you will be going.

“But I couldn’t be happier to be going to one of the best teams in the NHL where winning the Stanley Cup is the expectation.”

Vancouver Province

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