Team USA stint primes Ballard for NHL

Updated: June 8, 2004, 10:12 PM ET
Associated Press

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- University of Minnesota defenseman Keith Ballard signed a three-year contract with the Phoenix Coyotes on Tuesday after playing alongside NHL veterans convinced him he was ready for the next step.

Ballard will receive nearly $1.2 million, including bonuses, over the life of the entry-level contract.

The 21-year-old blue-liner was the only NCAA player on the roster when Team USA took the bronze medal in April at the World Championships in the Czech Republic.

"After being around that caliber players, I came to the decision that I was ready to move on and I could play at that level," Ballard said. "I think it's going to take a lot of work and a lot of commitment from me not only this summer but in years to come to get to the level I want to be at, but I think this is a good first step."

Minnesota coach Don Lucia, whose team won consecutive NCAA titles in 2002-03 during Ballard's freshman and sophomore seasons, said the money was too good to pass up.

"Keith was only going to leave if he received the maximum allowable offer under the salary cap, and that's what he got," Lucia said.

Ballard alluded to the Sept. 15 expiration of the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the player's union, saying that if there is a season, he hopes to play in the NHL his first year. So far, owners are united about a lockout if no new agreement is reached by then.

But Ballard was happy to turn pro despite the uncertainty.

"I'm trying to enjoy the moment," he said. "I haven't really thought about whether or not there's a season. I know regardless of where I play next year, I'm going to develop and become a better player, and that's the ultimate goal."

The Coyotes acquired Ballard and defenseman Derek Morris from Colorado on March 9 for center Chris Gratton, defenseman Ossi Vaananen and a second-round draft choice in 2005. It was the second trade for Ballard, who was Buffalo's first-round selection (No. 11) in the 2002 entry draft.

The Coyotes, slumping so badly they fired coach Bob Francis two weeks before the deal, were hungry for a high-scoring defenseman like Morris. But general manager Michael Barnett said Ballard has similar abilities on offense and was an integral part of the deal.

"Giving up a very fine young defenseman like Ossi Vaananen, we wanted to bring one back into the organization," Barnett said. "And we were insistent on it being Keith Ballard. There were other names that were presented. We're very, very pleased. Our scouts ... were adamant that this was a player that, if we possibly could bring him into the organization, we should do so."

In addition to his skill and talent, Ballard rates high in intangibles such as leadership.

His teammates voted him the Gophers' MVP last season, and he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, college hockey's Heisman equivalent.

He had 11 goals and 25 assists to average nearly a point a game in the 37-game 2003-04 season. Ballard also tied for sixth in the NCAA with five game-winning goals and was second on the team in assists, third in shots (120) and first in penalty minutes (83).

In 123 college games, he had 33 goals and 67 assists.

Ballard will join former Golden Gophers Erik Westrum and Jeff Taffe in the Coyotes' organization.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press