News broke yesterday that the Wild had agreed to terms on a two-year contract with defenseman Keith Ballard, and today, the first day of NHL free agency, he officially becomes the newest addition to the club’s roster.
The Baudette native returns to the State of Hockey after stints during his eight-year career with the Phoenix Coyotes, Florida Panthers and Vancouver Canucks. In 545 NHL games, the blueliner has totaled 165 points (36-129=165) and 549 penalty minutes.
After three up-and-down seasons with the Canucks, the 30-year-old looks to reestablish himself in his home state. Ballard racked up 20-plus assists in three of his first four seasons before his production slowed down in Vancouver.
“I think first and foremost the decision yesterday came down to a hockey decision,” Ballard said. “I was looking for a fresh start; a new opportunity."
In his first season with the Canucks, Ballard was coming off of an injury and was just unable to get on track with the organization.
“I came there off a fairly major hip surgery and I wasn't ready to start the season,” Ballard acknowledged. “You only get one first impression, it took me a while just to get comfortable on the ice. I had some injuries that year, it was partially that and getting accustomed to a role that was different than what I was used to the first five years of my career.
“I don't think there was any one or two reasons things didn't work out, but I'm excited to move on.”
Ballard is a solid passer, but also will bring a physical presence to the Wild blue line. He likes to throw open-ice hits and hip checks along the wall in the defensive zone. He also will bring veteran presence to young core of Wild blueliners.
“We're young on defense and we wanted to add another quality player,” Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “Certainly Keith is a player that's played close to 550 games in the NHL and brings a lot of experience to the table.”
Before jumping to the NHL with Phoenix, Ballard was a three-year standout (2001-2004) with the University of Minnesota racking up 100 points (33-67=100) in 123 games. He helped the Gophers win back-to-back NCAA National Championships in 2002 and 2003. In his final season with the UofM, he was named a NCAA West First Team All-American and a Hobey Baker Memorial Award Finalist.
“I'm excited to play in front of these fans in this building, I have a lot of good memories (from his days with the Gophers),” Ballard said. “The fans in Minnesota are amazing.”
One of the things that made Ballard an attractive player for Fletcher was his competitiveness.
“What I like about Keith is that he's a competitor,” Fletcher said. “When you look back at his collegiate days, you don't win two national championships unless you're a good hockey player who competes hard, he was one of the best hockey players on that team and he's been a good NHL player.
“A few years ago in Florida, he was a really good two-way defenseman in this league. We're confident we can get his game back to where it was before.”
Ballard has represented the United States in several international competitions, as well. He skated for the US National Team at the World Championship (2004, 2007, 2008 and 2009), World Junior Championship (2002) and U18 World Championship (2000). He was originally selected by Buffalo in the first-round (11th overall) of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.
Skating in international competition and also during summer workouts, Ballard is familiar with many players on the Wild’s roster.
“I know most of the guys fairly well,” Ballard said. “We skated together all during the lockout and I played with a few guys for some USA Hockey stuff, with Ryan (Suter) and Zach (Parise), with (Jason) Pominville.”
But back in his home state, he’s ready to make an impact and show that he’s still a productive NHL defenseman.
“I want to come in and compete for a spot, earn ice time and earn a spot on the team. A lot of that determines how I do, how I play,” Ballard said. “It’s a bonus that I'm from here and my family's from here.