By: Chad Lynch
After only two days of the Phoenix Coyotes 2005 Rookie Camp, it is apparent that one of the catalysts of this talented young group is defenseman Keith Ballard. Ballard has been physical in his on-ice workouts, vocal in his support for his teammates and he continues to surpass expectations. Then again, expectations are nothing new to Ballard.
Originally drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the first-round (11th overall) of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Ballard was then traded to the Colorado Avalanche in July of 2003; before becoming part of the Coyotes organization in March 2004.
While Ballard's NHL affiliation changed, he remained a constant on the University of Minnesota's blueline from 2001-2004. During which time, he not only helped the Golden Gophers win consecutive NCAA Championships, but also was named to two NCAA West All-American First Teams, finished seventh on the school's all-time list for goals by a defenseman (33) and 11th for total points (100).
Ballard, now 22 years old, is only getting better in the eyes of Coyotes management and coaches.
"It is a on-going process, but he is progressing very well," said San Antonio Rampage (Phoenix's American Hockey League affiliate) Head Coach Pat Conacher. "He has come into camp this year in the best shape of his life. He is bigger and stronger than ever and his skill level is as high as it has ever been."
Part of what makes Ballard such a coveted prospect is his ability to adapt to all aspects of the game. His speed keeps him from getting caught out of position; his hands allow him to provide breakout passes that are on-the-mark and his aggressive nature refuses to let him shy away from the physical brand of hockey that is the NHL.
"I really like the way his game has evolved," said Conacher. "He is doing the things we want to see him do instinctively and he is doing them every time he steps on the ice. While his speed is one of his biggest assets, he still doesn't let himself get caught out of position. That is the mark of a good defenseman."
For Ballard, this camp is about more than just showing how far he has come individually; it is about getting back into a team atmosphere and helping the team win.
"It is so nice to be back here," said Ballard. "It is such a huge difference from the summer hockey games that a lot of guys play. I love getting back with teammates and working on team concepts in a formal setting. I think it brings out the best hockey that every guy here has to offer."
With only two days remaining until the Coyotes rookies travel to San Jose, California for the rookie tournament, Ballard is already reminding his fellow teammates of the importance of a strong showing.
"It is hard on one hand because you only have four days and there is a limit on how much any team can do in that amount of time," said Ballard. "On the other hand, I want to see our team have a much better performance than we had last year and I think we can do that if we start off strong and give ourselves the chance to play in the championship game."
After spending last season with Utah (AHL) Ballard is also one of the few Coyotes entering camp with professional hockey experience; something that has helped Ballard assume a leadership role on this year's squad.
"I think playing a full pro season helped me develop into more of a leader," said Ballard. "I played in 60 games last year and really learned how to play at the professional level. You learn that you are going to have stretches of three games in three nights, you are going to have to play on nights when your body doesn't feel well and there are going to be times when some parts of your game may not be there, but the challenge to becoming a good player at that level is working through those challenges and still finding a way to win."