Keith Ballard signs with NHL's Phoenix Coyotes

Keith Ballard is off to the NHL. The Baudette, Minn., native will join former Golden Gophers Erik Westrum and Jeff Taffe in the Coyotes organization.

Minnesota defenseman Keith Ballard (Baudette, Minn.) has decided to forgo his senior year of eligibility and has signed a professional contract with the Phoenix Coyotes of the National Hockey League (NHL). Ballard will join former Golden Gophers Erik Westrum and Jeff Taffe in the Coyotes organization.

"Although we will miss him, we are extremely happy for Keith," Gophers head coach Don Lucia said. "I know it is a dream come true for him to have an opportunity to play in the NHL."

The Coyotes acquired Ballard on March 9, 2004, along with defenseman Derek Morris from the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for center Chris Gratton, defenseman Ossi Vaananen and the Coyotes' second-round draft choice in the 2005 Entry Draft. Ballard was originally drafted by the Buffalo Sabres (1st round, 11th overall) in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.

"He's been a great hockey player during his three years here, but is an even better person off the ice," said Lucia. "Keith was only going to leave if he received the maximum allowable offer under the salary cap and that's what he received. It was just too good of an opportunity for him to pass up. He will be a great representative of the University of Minnesota and we thank him for his contributions to this program."

Ballard was a 2003-04 All-American, a Hobey Baker Memorial Award Finalist and an All-WCHA First Team selection after finishing the season with 11 goals and 25 assists for 36 points in 37 games. He finishes his Minnesota career alone in seventh place on Minnesota's all-time list for goals by a defenseman with 33. Ballard is one of only 11 defensemen in school history to tally 100 points in a career. He had 33-67--100 for 11th place on Minnesota's points-by-a-defenseman list. During his freshman and sophomore seasons, Ballard helped lead the Golden Gophers to consecutive NCAA titles in 2002 and 2003.

With Ballard signing, the Gophers could lose the first of two key players. Thomas Vanek is expected to sign with the Buffalo Sabres, but that has not happened and has not yet been confirmed by Vanek or the Sabres organization.

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