OTTAWA – Don Lucia didn’t hesitate.
When asked Saturday morning to describe newly-acquired Panther defenseman Keith Ballard, the University of Minnesota’s head coach replied; “World class kid…fearless…outstanding player.”
Ballard, who helped the Golden Gophers to consecutive national championships in 2002-03, was acquired Friday evening by the Panthers along with another Coyotes defenseman in Nick Boynton.
While Ballard hasn’t played a lot against Eastern Conference teams, his reputation as a tough defenseman who also can rush the puck is well known throughout the NHL.
Darren Pang, analyst for the Coyotes and Versus, called Ballard “incredibly passionate.” Coyotes’ head coach Wayne Gretzky called Ballard a “hell of a competitor
.” And Lucia believes no one works harder than Ballard, a fan favorite in both Minnesota and Phoenix because of his rugged play and fierce hip checks.
“He’s in the weight room right now here in the Twin Cities with our strength coach,” Lucia said. “He’s a very devoted athlete and a great kid.”
Ballard, a native of Baudette, Mn., a small town of less than 1,000 people, was recruited by Lucia out of high school. Ballard became a fan favorite at Minnesota late in his freshman season in the first round of the playoffs when he scored an overtime goal to secure a sweep of North Dakota. He later scored the first goal in the NCAA Championship game against Maine. It would be the first of consecutive championships Ballard would win at Minnesota.
Ballard said Saturday afternoon that playing at Minnesota instilled in him a winning attitude.
“Being part of a program like Minnesota, winning becomes part of your mindset,” he said. “You expect a lot of yourself. You expect a lot of yourself every night you play. That’s just part of my persona.”
Although Ballard has not put up the kind of offensive numbers in Phoenix as he did in Minnesota – he had 33 goals in his three years with the Gophers – Lucia believes Ballard is capable of being the puck-moving defenseman the Panthers were seeking.
“He was an impact, offensive player for us as a freshman,” Lucia said. “He was a big reason why we won two national championships. He was never afraid to move the puck up ice, and we gave him the green light a lot. He was very good on the power play, and he shoots the puck well.
“For us, Keith was more of an offensive defenseman.”
Ballard said Saturday his role changed when he arrived in Phoenix, but it may have helped him in the long run.
“When I got to Phoenix they had Jovo (Ed Jovanovski
), and he was playing on the power play,” Ballard said. “But that was fine. I took on a more defensive role and, for me, that was good. I think it helped in my development, playing more on the defensive side, and I didn’t mind that.”
After a year with the Utah Grizzlies in the American Hockey League, Ballard began his NHL career in Phoenix in 2005-06. In the past three years, Ballard has proven durable. He’s played 82 games twice during his three years and has missed only 13 games.
Ballard says he doesn’t know much about the Panthers because he hasn’t played against them. But he was a teammates of David Booth at the World Championships in the spring and knows about the Panthers promising roster of talent.
“It’s going to be exciting to be there,” Ballard said. “I haven’t really had a chance to see Florida much but I know about (Stephen) Weiss and (Nathan) Horton and (Jay) Bouwmeester.”
As for those hip checks that Ballard is known to hand out, Ballard says; “You know, I used it a little here and there and I started getting more comfortable with it.”
“The only thing is someone is probably going to be coming after me, but that’s OK.