VANCOUVER – The best Vancouver Canuck playoff run in years has not always been a happy time for defenceman Keith Ballard.
Ballard has done more watching than playing for the Canucks this spring. That has forced the former first-round draft pick to put the team first while swallowing his pride.
“It’s tough when you come into the locker room after a game, a big win,” Ballard said prior to the Canucks playing the San Jose Sharks in Game 5 of the NHL Western Conference final Tuesday.
“You are in a suit. Everybody else, you have seen the commitment they have shown on the ice. You, as a player, want so bad to be out there with them and be part of that. It’s definitely hard.”
Heading into Tuesday, a healthy Ballard had dressed for just eight of the Canucks’ 17 playoffs games. He has no points while averaging 12:58 of ice time.
Ballard has managed to keep his personal disappointment under wraps as the Canucks get closer to appearing in the Stanley Cup final for the first time in 17 years.
“You have to be a good teammate,” said the soft-spoken, 28-year-old from Baudette, Min. “You can’t walk around with a bad attitude or be upset or pout.
“We are all pulling for the same thing. I am as happy as the next guy for when the guys who are playing do a great job. When we win, that’s part of being a team.”
Canuck coach Alain Vigneault praised Ballard’s character.
“He’s like the rest of the group, he wants to win,” said Vigneault. “I’m sure he’d like to play on a nightly basis.
“But given circumstances, he hasn’t. He’s put the team ahead of himself and made sure that he stayed positive around his teammates. That’s what we expect of him. In that situation, that’s what he’s given us. Now we need him to play and he played well.”
Ballard played for the first time in seven games when he dressed for Sunday’s 4-2 win over the Sharks in San Jose. He was given the chance after Christian Ehrhoff and Aaron Rome both were hurt by checks from San Jose’s Jamie McGinn in Game 3.
Paired with rookie Chris Tanev, Ballard had 10:34 of ice time, finished the night at minus-1, and sent McGinn cartwheeling through the air with a hip check that made several highlight reels.
“I knew the whole way who it was,” said Ballard. “He’s a guy who comes hard, so I had to slow him down somehow.”
Overall, Ballard was happy with the game.
“We were solid,” he said. “It was probably what they wanted out of us.
“We got the puck up to the forwards as soon as possible.”
This is Ballard’s sixth NHL season, but his first time in the playoffs. He spent three seasons with the Phoenix Coyotes and two with the Florida Panthers.
The Canucks acquired Ballard and Victor Oreskovich last June in a trade that sent Steve Bernier, Michael Grabner and a first-round draft pick to Florida.
Ballard, who came to Vancouver under contract for the next five seasons at US$4.2 million a year, underwent hip surgery in the offseason.
He was a healthy scratch for four games in November, plus missed matches due to a concussion in October and a knee injury in February.
In 65 regular season games he had two goals, seven points, and led the team with 111 blocked shots.
By not playing Ballard in the playoffs, Vigneault has made it clear there is something lacking in the defenceman’s game.
Ballard said on a team deep on defenceman, he has to be patient.
“We have six defenceman who have all been that 25-minute a game guy,” he said. “My role was less on this team.
“For me, I want to contribute in some way or the other. Not everyone can play 25 minutes. Not everybody is on the power play or the penalty kill. You have to buy into your role and buy into what ever role that is.”
The Canucks will have to make some decisions on defence over the summer. Sami Salo is 36 years old, while both Kevin Bieksa and Ehrhoff become unrestricted free agents.
What ever happens, Ballard said he has learned a lot about himselfduring the playoffs.
“If you don’t learn something going through this, you are doing something wrong,” he said with a smile. “Adversity tests you the most.
“It’s easy to be upbeat and positive when everything is going well. You have to able to handle the adversity. You look at anybody’s career, over some period of time there is bumps in the road. That’s all it is.”