After winning two National Championships with the University of Minnesota, Keith Ballard returns to the Twin Cities as a new member of the Minnesota Wild. The Baudette, Minn. native played three seasons with the Gophers under Don Lucia and after signing a two-year $3 million dollar deal with the Wild, he will get a chance to play for a home-state team once again.
Ballard was signed officially Friday after being bought out of his contract with the Vancouver Canucks. The defenseman spent the last three seasons with Vancouver and recorded just 16 points total over his time there. Ballard previously played with the Florida Panthers and the Phoenix Coyotes and was a very productive offensive defenseman on the blue line at each stop.
In his rookie NHL season with Phoenix in 2005-06, Ballard submitted his best offensive season of his eight year career. He scored eight goals and assisted on 31 others while playing in all 82 regular season games for Phoenix that year.
Ballard will be the first Gophers alum to skate for the Wild since Jeff Taffe played five games with Minnesota in 2011-12. He joins Erik Westrum, Darby Hendrickson, Danny Irmen, Wyatt Smith and Taffe as former Gophers to play with the Wild.
Taffe and Ballard were teammates together at Minnesota in 2001-02 when they won the NCAA National Championship at Xcel Energy Center beating Maine 4-3 in overtime. It was current Gophers assistant coach Grant Potulny who scored the game-winning goal in OT to give Minnesota their fourth National Championship in men’s ice hockey at the time. Ballard scored the first goal of that game on the power play.
In his three years with the Maroon and Gold, Ballard recorded 100 total points and was named a First Team All-American in 2004. In his career at Minnesota he improved from the All-WCHA Rookie team, to the All-WCHA Second Team, and to the All-WCHA First Team progressively.
The Ballard signing, combined with the signing of Zach Parise last season, shows that a trend may be starting of Minnesotans making a pilgrimage to the Wild in the later parts of their professional careers. Though in order to make room on the roster financially, Minnesota had to buyout Bloomington native Tom Gilbert of his contract. The Wild also just lost Moorhead native Matt Cullen to free agency.
The Wild would have liked to keep Cullen on the roster, but the NHL Salary Cap came down this season and pushed them to brink fiscally. Next season the Wild will have a lot more cap space and look to hit free agency hard. The top free agent next season that is rumored to be coveted by Minnesota is former Gopher Thomas Vanek.
The Buffalo Sabers forward is not a Minnesota native, but the Austrian superstar would be welcomed back to the Twin Cities where his family calls home. Ballard also calls the Twin Cities metro area home in the offseason and already owns a home in Edina with his family. The two were teammates together on the Gophers in each of the two seasons Vanek played with the UofM, including the second national title that Ballard would win in 2002-03.
Vanek was clutch for the Gophers in his rookie campaign, scoring a goal and an assist in each game of that Frozen Four. His overtime game-winner versus Michigan in the semifinals propelled the team into the championship game versus New Hampshire where Vanek would score the game winning goal again.
It should be exciting for Gophers fans to see Ballard climb over the boards at Xcel Energy Center with the Wild for the next two seasons at home. The same boards that Ballard jumped over to help maul Potulny after he sent a Gophers dominated crowd in that building into a frenzy just over a decade ago.