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The new guy

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks

“It’s a team where winning the Stanley Cup is the expectation. Every team maybe says that, but in all reality this is a situation where it really is.”

Canucks newcomer Keith Ballard has been saying all the right things since he was acquired from the Florida Panthers, along with forward Victor Oreskovich, last Friday during the NHL Draft.

“They have one of the best goaltenders – sorry we have one of the best goaltenders in the league and the defence was one of the best units in the league last year. Move up front and they are a high-scoring, skilled team with the talent they have – I keep saying they, it’s we – it’s a great team.”

Okay, he’s almost saying all the right things.

You’ll have to forgive Ballard for his slip of the tongue, the fact that he was dealt from the Panthers, a team rutted in a nine-year post-season drought, to the Canucks, a team closer than ever to its first championship, is still sinking in.

Selected 11th overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 2002, Ballard has since been a part of three entry drafts; in 2005 he was traded to Phoenix, in 2008 he was shipped to Florida and now this, a trade to Vancouver.

Draft day may be exciting for prospects, but it’s Groundhog Day for Ballard. The difference this time around for the 27-year-old fifth-year NHLer is where he ended up. After playing for the Coyotes and Panthers in cities where hockey falls behind parking for the early bird special in terms of importance, Ballard is now where hockey is life.

“I’m excited,” gushed Ballard, a Minnesotan raised with hockey as his religion. “I’m excited for everything. I’m excited to play in a big hockey market and play somewhere where winning is the expectation and you’re held accountable.

“For everybody in Vancouver hockey is the number one priority and I think for me that’ll be good. I spent five years in non-traditional markets where hockey really takes a back seat and I think this will be a good change. I think it’ll get the most out of me as a player.”

Getting the most out of Ballard will be important as the Canucks were forced out in the second round of the 2010 Playoffs because of injury gaps on the blueline. Getting the most out of Ballard will also be important in silencing those who feel giving up Michael Grabner as part of the swap was too hefty a price to pay.

Skeptic or not, everyone is asking the same questions: where does Ballard see himself fitting into the defence and how will he compliment the unit?

“I think I’ll fit in a couple of different ways where I can play an offensive game and join the play and fit in with that attacking philosophy. For me, when I’m playing my best, I’m physical and I have that aspect as well where I’m trying to be hard to play against.

“It doesn’t matter what type of player I’m paired with, I’ve played with both offensive or defensive and I’m comfortable with either style. It’ll depend what kind of role they ask of me and how they want me to play, if they want me to stay back and be more defensive and physical, I can do that, or if they put me with more of a stay-at-home guy and want me to go, I can go that as well.”

So you’re a jack-of-all-trades? “And a master of none,” laughed Ballard.

Ballard isn’t sure when he’ll visit Vancouver this summer, but he’ll be doing so with certain familiarity. Although he’s the new kid in class, Ballard knows Tanner Glass as the two went to war for the Panthers in 2008-09 and Ballard is also friends with Andrew Alberts, his American teammate at the 2007 Men's World Ice Hockey Championships.

Ballard was also coached by Rick Bowness his first year in Phoenix and Laurence Gilman was assistant GM of the Coyotes at that time as well. All this familiarity has taken some of the weight off the defenceman’s broad shoulders.

Victor Oreskovich, on the other hand, is a newbie in every sense of the word. Luckily he’s getting a rousing endorsement from Ballard.

“Vic is a real good skater, he’s really strong, he’s real good on the forecheck as far as using his speed and he’s very physical. He creates a lot of chances using his physical play and his speed, he gets in on the foreheck and separates real well and can do a good job down low defensively. He’s a Canadian kid and I know he’s excited about coming to Vancouver as well.”

Vancouver’s management team may not have had a fresh face to pose with during the first round of the 2010 Draft, but the odds of the Canucks posing with the Holy Grail increased because of it.

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