It’s no secret that the Canucks’ biggest need this off-season was to beef up their defense. UFA-to-be Willie Mitchell’s return was uncertain and defensive prospects Kevin Connauton and Yann Sauve were at least one, maybe two or more, years away from making the big club. So yesterday, on NHL Draft Day, GM Mike Gillis sent the Canucks’ 1st round (25th overall) draft pick, Steve Bernier and Michael Grabner to the Florida Panthers and acquired Keith Ballard and prospect Victor Oreskovich.
The Canucks filled a need by acquiring Ballard. He is a legitimate top-4 defenseman with the ability to play big minutes. Among all NHL defensemen in 2009/2010, he ranked 55th in average TOI , 30th in total ES TOI and 32nd in total SH TOI. Those weren’t easy minutes either; according to Behind The Net, he had the 8th highest “quality of competition” among all defensemen who played at least 60 games.
Ballard adds a physical component in the Canucks’ back end. He finished last season with 201 blocked shots – 3rd among all NHL players – and 156 hits – 26th among NHL defensemen and 44 more hits than Canucks team leader Shane O’Brien.
He also has history with Canucks assistant coach, Rick Bowness (assuming he is re-signed), from their Phoenix days and should fit in nicely with a defensive core that already includes Alex Edler, Christian Ehrhoff and Sami Salo. (Yes, I know Kevin Bieksa is still a Canuck.)
In a nutshell, Ballard is the kind of defenseman the Canucks were looking to add to their lineup. He is the kind of defenseman Jarred Tinordi and Dylan McIlrath, if the Canucks had selected them with their 25th pick, could be, and the kind of defenseman potential free agent targets, Dan Hamhuis and Anton Volchenkov, are. But as highly-touted Tinordi and McIlrath are, it would’ve been a stretch to expect either one to step into the lineup and help the team immediately. And of course, there’s no guarantee that Gillis would’ve been able to sign Hamuis, Volchenkov or any other top-4 defenseman in the open market.
In fact, Ballard may be quite comparable to Hamhuis – both are 27 years old and both are good skaters who play a solid two-way game – though Ballard probably plays a bit more physically and has historically averaged more points. At last report Hamhuis was looking at a multi-year contract in the $4.5 million per year range and his rights have been traded twice in the last week; on the other hand, Ballard is signed for 5 more years at $4.2 million per year.
There will be Canucks fans out there who won’t like this trade because of who Mike Gillis gave up. Some feel that Gillis could’ve simply waited a week and then signed a top-4 defenseman without giving up Bernier, Grabner and a first-round pick who could turn out to be a real player. Jason Botchford (Vancouver Province) has a good analysis of this trade in response to that perspective:
Let’s look at what the Canucks gave up for Ballard — their 2010 first-round pick, Bernier and Michael Grabner.
The easiest decision was unloading Bernier. Despite a career of opportunity, including chances to play with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek and the Sedin twins, he hasn’t made it work with any of them. Maybe if he was healthy, which he wasn’t last year, he could have found a home on the Canucks’ third line. But he doesn’t have the speed to be an impact player. He’s a tweener who doesn’t fit on a decent team. Dumping his $2 million is a benefit for the Canucks. A big one.
Next is the first-round pick. Gillis said his scouts were disappointed when they learned he was sending his only pick in the first three rounds to Florida. It must have felt like the scouts wasted a season of pavement pounding, number crunching and skill analysis. But, if they did their job, it makes this trade much, much better.
Heading into the draft, Gillis revealed he wasn’t bullish on this draft class, especially at defence.
The key component of the deal is Grabner, a flashy prospect who has speed, scoring touch and promise. But let’s be real. He’s a defensive mess, can’t kill penalties and is consistently reluctant to go to the net. He’s soft. He wasn’t going to play this year. The Canucks didn’t want him on their third line and had no room for him in their top six.
So there you have it. To acquire Ballard, the Canucks gave up some forward depth, one they can afford with Cody Hodgson, Jordan Schroeder and Anton Rodin ready to move their way up the depth chart, and a late first round pick which (most likely) wasn’t going to help them win the Stanley Cup next year. They may have paid a steep price to address a need, but you know, you have to give to get.