One year ago, the Vancouver Canucks were teeming with depth on the blueline, and training camp was used to determine which NHL veterans made the best pairs.
It was clear that at least one defenceman was going to see a sharp decline in ice time, and that defenceman was Keith Ballard.
Coming off hip surgery, Ballard wasn't in tip-top shape, and was going to be eased into the lineup. Then he suffered a concussion in the first week of the regular season, setting off a campaign of misery for the former top-four blueliner, whom the Canucks acquired from the Florida Panthers for 34-goal scorer Michael Grabner, winger Steve Bernier, and a first-round draft choice.
The Canucks managed without Ballard's best, and won the Presidents' Trophy as the league's top finisher in the regular season. They had plenty of solid defence options even without Ballard, but that isn't the case anymore.
With camp set to begin Friday, Vancouver is banking on a Ballard bounce-back. And if it doesn't happen, the reinforcements just don't appear to be there as they were a season ago, especially not with Christian Ehrhoff plying his trade in Buffalo.
"We fully anticipate that Keith is going to be an everyday player who contributes on multiple levels," assistant general manager Laurence Gilman said.
Gilman's use of the term "everyday player" is significant, because by the Stanley Cup final last year, it was clear that Alain Vigneault didn't feel likewise. Ballard was deep in the coach's doghouse during the postseason, bypassed on the depth chart by journeymen such as Andrew Alberts and Aaron Rome, who have neither the upside nor the skating and puck skills of the former Panther and Phoenix Coyote. When injuries finally provided an opportunity for Ballard to play on the sport's biggest stage, he responded with a whimper.
His exclamation point was a turnover near the goalmouth in Game 4 of the final at Boston's TD Garden. The mistake was a reflection of Ballard's destroyed confidence, and it vindicated Vigneault, who was being criticized for benching a $4.2-million (all currency U.S.) player when the chips were down.
This season, Vigneault may not have that option. Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis and Alexander Edler are expected to log the lion's share of minutes, but missing Ehrhoff, both on the power-play and the 24 minutes he ate each game, means playing time is available.
The Canucks have already said they plan to manage Sami Salo's workload because of the 37-year-old's long injury history, and they are hoping that sophomore Chris Tanev takes another step forward and contributes in a larger role. Alberts, Rome and import Alexander Sulzer are around looking to fill out the depth chart, but a top-four slot, and a power-play role, are there for the taking if Ballard can regain form.
If not, then the Canucks will have to explore trade options later in the NHL calendar. They felt they had enough depth last season, but injuries and inconsistency forced Tanev into the lineup during the Cup final. That was hardly management's plan, and it is clear that the high-end depth, minus Ehrhoff, is thinner than it was last season.
"That was their message to me: 'Next year is a clean slate, put [last]year behind you,'" Ballard said about his exit meeting. "That stuff [ice time and special-teams roles]will sort itself out in camp. My focus isn't 'I want to play this many minutes. I want to play with this guy. I want to play in these situations.' I want to come in and play to my abilities, and the rest will take care of itself."