Nearly one-third of the way through the NHL season, the Vancouver Canucks have rarely seen the Keith Ballard they thought they were getting in a blockbuster trade on draft day.
He has played minutes commensurate with a No. 6 defenceman. He hasn't been used on the power play. He was a healthy scratch for the first time in his career.
But ever so slowly, the real Keith Ballard is starting to show up. He's throwing checks. He's blocking shots. He's on the verge of earning more ice time, perhaps even some power-play duty.
Given that he cost the Canucks the equivalent of two first-round picks, a serviceable winger in Steve Bernier and $4.2-million (U.S.) a season, it's about time.
"We have been talking, without a doubt, as a coaching staff about getting his minutes up, and I think we're going to do that here as we move forward," head coach Alain Vigneault said Monday. "His game has been on the upswing, there's no doubt."
For Ballard, the biggest indignity came in mid-November when he was a healthy scratch for four successive games. He was slowed in training camp by off-season hip surgery, and his conditioning wasn't up to snuff when the regular season began.
That first week, he suffered a concussion against the Los Angeles Kings and missed five games. Then when his bid in purgatory was up and he was ready to take his regular place after being sat down, he caught the flu and missed two more games.
Add it all up and Vigneault's confidence in the six-year veteran was shaken.
"When you don't know somebody and when somebody doesn't know you as a person, or as a player, very well, it definitely takes time to build that trust so he knows what to expect every night when you're on the ice," Ballard said. "Since I've come back, I kind of feel like I've been improving, little by little, and feeling more comfortable."
Ballard was acquired from the Florida Panthers in June alongside Victor Oreskovich. The Canucks acknowledged that they paid a high price - the 25th overall pick, former first-rounder Michael Grabner, who was starting to blossom late last year, and Bernier - but said that 28-year-old, minutes-eating defencemen with Ballard's versatility didn't come cheap.
True, but the way Vigneault has been using him, the Canucks haven't exactly been getting bang for their buck. Aaron Rome and Andrew Alberts, who struggled in the playoffs last season, had leapfrogged Ballard on the depth chart.
Both Vigneault and Ballard admitted that there was a two-way feeling-out process, and the latter is also playing in his first real hockey market - and on his first real contender.
Monday, Ballard said that his hip has now fully recovered, and that over the last three weeks, he feels like he's back in top shape. He was also used on the second power-play unit in practice, alongside free-agent addition Dan Hamhuis, as Vigneault looks for a spark.
"As far as the second group goes, there are a number of guys who are interchangeable," Ballard said. "I know I struggled, and it was just a hard time getting my game back. So I have no trouble with not being on the power play. I had more things to worry about."