ST. PAUL, Minn. — Chuck Fletcher’s memories of defenseman Keith Ballard extend back to Fletcher’s days in Pittsburgh, when he was the Penguins’ assistant general manager.
Fletcher, now as the Minnesota Wild general manager, remembered facing the Florida Panthers and a young defenseman, Ballard, holding his own against Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby.
In signing him to a two-year contract, Fletcher believes Ballard, 30, can get back to that point after a few down seasons in Vancouver.
“They would play Keith Ballard against Sidney Crosby, and it was a tough night for Sidney Crosby,” Fletcher said Friday after the signing of Ballard became official with the opening of NHL free agency. “So, he competes, he can skate, he can move the puck and he’s a good player. Our defense is much deeper today than it was yesterday.”
Ballard, 30, averaged 29.8 points per game his first five seasons in the NHL split between the Phoenix Coyotes and Florida. But a three-year stay in Vancouver, after he was traded to the Canucks by the Panthers, never worked out for Ballard. He was a compliance buyout by Vancouver this weekend and returns to Minnesota where he was born in Baudette, Minn., and won two National Championships at the University of Minnesota.
Ballard said he had “probably about a half-dozen” other teams interested in signing him after he was bought out by the Canucks, but he made his way back to Minnesota because of the fit with the Wild and not necessarily because of his Minnesota ties.
“I think first and foremost the decision yesterday came down to a hockey decision,” Ballard said Friday. “I was looking for a fresh start, a new opportunity, and I weighed some different options and this was a good fit. It’s a bonus that I’m from here, my family’s from here, my wife’s from here. So that’s a bonus. But like I said first and foremost it was a hockey decision.”
Re-establishing his career, while coming home, turned out to be the best option for Ballard.
When he was traded to Vancouver, Ballard was coming off a season in which he had eight goals and 20 assists in his final year with Florida. He had averaged 6.6 goals and 23.3 assists per game in those first five years, but then finished his three years with the Canucks with a total of three goals and 13 assists in 148 games.
Ballard was coming off a hip injury, and believes his time with Vancouver was doomed from the beginning.
“I came in there just off of a fairly major hip surgery, and I wasn’t really ready to go to start the season, and you kind of get one first impression, right?” Ballard said. “It took me awhile just to get comfortable on the ice, and I had some injuries that year. It was partially that and partially trying to get accustomed to a role that was probably different than what I was used to the first five years of my career, and it was finding a place in the lineup and I don’t think there was any one or two reasons why it didn’t work out, but I’m excited to move on.”
Ballard, who has 36 goals and 129 assists in 165 career NHL games, said he wasn’t surprised Vancouver bought out of the final two years of a six-year, $25.2 million contract he had signed in 2009.
“I was pretty realistic about it,” Ballard said. “I think an opportunity under a different coach would’ve maybe been a change and something that was possible, but numbers-wise I was pretty realistic that unless they moved somebody else it was probably coming.”
The Wild hope Ballard, returning to the promise he held in Florida, can help the team’s defense and provide another veteran leader on the back end for a young defense.
Minnesota, which re-signed Jared Spurgeon on Friday as well, will have Ballard joining Spurgeon, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser and possibly 2012 first-rounder Mathew Dumba on defense next season.
“Obviously the situation didn’t work out in Vancouver for him the way he wanted it to,” Fletcher said. “We’re pretty young on defense so we wanted to add another quality player, and certainly Keith is a player that’s played close to 550 games in the NHL and brings a lot of experience to the table but he’s a guy that can skate, he can move the puck, and he competes.
“A few years ago in Florida, he was a really good two-way defenseman in this league, and we’re pretty confident that we can get his game back and he can get his game back to what it was before. So we’re excited about it. He’s a good hockey player. He understood our cap situation. He was willing to work with us, and the deal came together pretty quickly.”
With the Wild buying out Tom Gilbert this week, Ballard saw the opportunity in Minnesota to revive his career.
“That’s kind of what I was looking for, an opportunity somewhere to come in and prove myself and play and get things going back on track,” Ballard said.
Returning to Minnesota hasn’t always been a cure-all for former high school or college athletes from the state. Playing in the hockey-crazed state can add immense expectations. But Ballard isn’t concerned about playing for a Minnesota team for the first time since his final season with the Gophers in 2003-04.
He said before he agreed to terms with the Wild, he talked with Zach Parise, who was born in Minneapolis and returned to Minnesota in free agency last year with high expectations.
“He had a lot of good things to say about it, and that was one thing that I talked about, being from here, what’s it like?” Ballard said. “We’re used to moving away here every fall and being on our own and your life slows down a little bit. But he said it was fun and he really enjoyed it. You can get wrapped up in all your buddies and all your friends and getting pulled in every direction, but for me I understand that this is an important year and you’ve got to be able to balance everything.”