For the Phoenix Coyotes, the 2005-06 NHL season has been all about change. The team has been among the most active in the trade market all season long with at least 18 players being dealt since the start of the season.
The Coyotes (33-34-4) have made no secret that they are searching for the right group of players to fit into the style and system that Head Coach and Hockey Great Wayne Gretzky has set for them and GM Mike Barnett hasn’t been afraid to pull the trigger to make those deals happen. After completing six deals at the trade deadline in March, Coach Gretzky and company feel that they have finally found that group of players that will lead the franchise into the future.
“There’s always an adjustment period,” said Gretzky, “Especially when your team is trying to get better. We have a young core here we’re not going to mess with…These core young guys are going to here awhile.”
Among the players that Gretzky has deemed to be a member of that important core is defenseman Keith Ballard. Ballard entered the season an inexperienced prospect but has recently graduated from prospect status to become a full-blown NHL regular.
“It’s been up and down,” said Ballard. “By no means have I been happy with every game and with every outcome. There’s definitely some ups and downs but personally I’ve felt more comfortable [recently].”
Ballard has continually shown promise throughout his young hockey career. The Minnesota native was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award in his final year playing at the collegiate level (2003-04) earning 11 goals and 36 points in 37 games. He also represented the US in the 2004 World Championships and played his first AHL season last year during the lockout. In his first professional season, Ballard appeared in 60 games, earning 20 points and a spot on the PlanetUSA AHL All-Star team.
Now in his first NHL season, Ballard has become a regular, appearing in all 71 of the Coyotes games while averaging 20:04 minutes of ice time per game, the fourth most among his teammates. Despite getting regular ice time and improving on last year’s point totals, Ballard still has room for improvement. He is a -21, a team worst.
But as the season has progressed, Ballard has seen his play improve and has become increasingly confident.
“The more you play and the more things you do well the more confident you become. And that’s just a natural process and I have felt more confident as the season’s progressed. And I think my play has gotten better.”
Ballard’s increasing confidence on the ice has been reflected in the stats column. In January alone, the Coyotes defenseman scored two goals and notched 11 helpers, earning him the January runner up for NHL Rookie of the Month award as well as the Coyotes Treasures Custom Jewelers Player award. Through 71 games played this season, the 2002 first draft pick has already earned 6 goals and 32 points. Ballard’s 32 points don’t just represent an improvement over last year’s totals, they also rank him eighth among all Coyotes scorers and third among all rookie defensemen.
But Ballard hasn’t been paying attention to the numbers.
“I don’t think that’s quite indicative of how well you played. I mean I’ve had good games with no points and bad games with a couple points so I think that comes with how well the team is playing. [When] more than one guy, more than two, more than three guys are doing the right thing, you get wins. You get goals and because of that more guys get points.”
Ballard’s game isn’t just about scoring goals. The 5’11, 208-pound defenseman ranks second on the team in blocked shots (126) and doesn’t shy away from physical play. He has 110 hits, third most among his teammates and has also been known to drop the gloves. He currently leads the team with six fighting majors. The result is a defenseman who can score and still play defense — an overall package that a coach can love.
“He’s played really well,” said Gretzky, “he’s been a pleasure to be around and a pleasure to coach. He just loves to come to the rink and play every day and I think the sky is the limit for him. He just absorbs everything and wants to get better every game.”
Gretzky has been particularly outspoken in his praise of Ballard. He’s been quoted throughout the season praising Ballard but the defenseman has taken the praise in stride.
“When the coach feels confidence in you it builds a little bit of trust between the two sides. The coaches, they know that you’re going to compete hard and play hard and they give you opportunities and you do get confidence from that.”
And as Ballard graduates from prospect status it would appear that the confidence his coaches have in him has been well earned.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.