And it’s doubly-difficult to do so in the off-season when meaningful games are still more than three months away.
But it is safe to say that the Vancouver Canucks defence – and by extension the whole team -- is better with the addition of Keith Ballard from the Florida Panthers. How much better and where exactly the 27-year-old Baudette, Minnesota native fits into the hockey club’s defensive depth chart will be determined in time. But for the second straight summer after acquiring Christian Ehrhoff from San Jose, Mike Gillis has targeted a blueliner and made a play to get him.
The Ballard deal is significant in a number of ways. It gives the Canucks another rearguard capable of logging significant minutes and playing in many situations. It adds a durable player who has familiarity with the Western Conference from his three years with the Phoenix Coyotes. And it gives the Canucks some flexibility to make more moves if they feel they need to continue to overhaul their blueline.
But perhaps more important than any of that is the fact that Friday’s trade with Florida marks Mike Gillis’ first significant trade as general manager of the Vancouver Canucks where a tough decision had to be made about the assets required to make the move.
Gillis didn’t have to part with key pieces of the organization – or its future – to get Ehrhoff or Shane O’Brien or Steve Bernier or Andrew Alberts in any of the earlier deals he had pulled off since taking the reins of the hockey club two years ago. But there was certainly a price to be paid to acquire Keith Ballard.
And as the old hockey adage goes: you have to give up something to get something and the ‘something’ the Canucks opted to move to Florida was Michael Grabner.
Aside from shipping Todd Bertuzzi to Florida to acquire Roberto Luongo (and let’s be honest there were few tears shed in Vancouver at the time that deal went down), it’s been years since the Canucks organization has made a trade like this one where the club rolled the dice and parted with a good young player to get something they wanted in return.
The main reason that it’s taken for so long for the Canucks to get in on this type of trading game is that the pipeline of prospects hasn’t exactly been churning out highly-coveted players. For the first time in a long time, the Canucks obviously believed they had enough in their cupboard and clearly felt they could afford to ship Grabner to Florida because they have high-hopes for Cody Hodgson and Jordan Schroeder to fill the void in the system. And that will certainly be an interesting study now to see how quickly the team’s 2006 first rounder (Grabner) develops into an every day contributor at the NHL level compared to those top picks of 2008 (Hodgson) and 2009 (Schroeder).
Grabner showed flashes of being ready to make that jump back in October before he got hurt. He also showed glimpses of being ready to contribute on a regular basis down the stretch and on a few nights in the playoffs. Then again, Grabner posted just one goal and was a healthy scratch on three occasions in the playoffs which raises a few questions about where he fit in the Canucks’ grand plans when the club was looking to ice its best line-up and Grabner was left out of the mix.
In Steve Bernier, the Canucks have moved a player to his fourth team in five seasons. That has to say something. As likeable as they come, Bernier has likely played his best hockey in the NHL and lacked the finish needed to be any kind of goal-scorer at this level and didn’t have the foot speed to keep up in a game now tailored to suit quick skaters.
The wild card in the mix is obviously that 25th pick that Florida used to select Moose Jaw centre Quinton Howden. It’ll be years before anyone knows what kind of NHL’er he’ll become. Thus, it’ll be years before any accurate assessment of Friday’s trade can be made.
But the fact that the trade was made at all should be seen as a good sign for Canucks fans who, for years, have called for the team to worry more about winning right now than down the road. Without doubt, Keith Ballard is the best player in the trade today. And he makes the Vancouver Canucks a better team than they were when their season ended on May 11th. The hope is he’ll make the Canucks the best team in hockey on June 11th (or thereabouts) next year.