Rejuvenated Ballard boosts blue line
One year ago in the playoffs Keith Ballard appeared to be Alain Vigneault’s favourite whipping boy, as he was frequently dropped from the post season lineup and fell victim to several less than flattering appraisals by his coach.
To his credit, the expensive free agent defenceman, acquired from the Florida Panthers (Vancouver’s favoured players dealer), was always professional in public forums acknowledging the need to improve his play, while resisting the urge to fire off any critical frustrations of his own.
He came back determined at the start of this year to improve on his highly inconsistent first year performance with the Canucks.
In the season opener Ballard scored a highlight reel goal off the rush, appearing to quiet the critics somewhat. But some of the same inconsistencies returned to plague his game, such as missed checking assignments and stickhandling turnovers.
Then to throw a further wrench in the works, Ballard sustained a back injury causing him to miss five games in November/ December, followed by a serious concussion in February that held him out of the remainder of the regular season.
Ballard’s stop/start year looked to have cemented another disappointing run with Vancouver.
Nevertheless, a year after that frustrating playoff run with the team, Ballard has returned from a challenging regular season to open eyes with his good form against the LA Kings, as one of a few bright lights in the first round prior to Game 4.
He has been one of the better players for Vancouver in this series, playing alongside the steady young Chris Tanev.
His skating has been as good as ever, and he has been much more proficient at clearing the defensive zone by banking or chipping the puck out quickly, rather than getting caught in possession.
As his confidence has climbed, he has also taken much more calculated risks in the offensive zone, pinching down intelligently to maintain the cycle, rather than getting caught up ice.
In a sea full of negative player ratings for the Canucks against LA, Ballard has maintained an even zero rating following their first win.
Hopefully, Vancouver can steal a few more games to help cement the newfound confidence and improved game of the speedy Ballard.