Team USA stint primes Ballard for NHL

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.