“[Ryan Ellis] is one of those players who has great poise and he is not afraid of the big moments,” Predators head coach Barry Trotz said after Nashville’s 1-0 overtime win over the San Jose Sharks last Tuesday. “That’s why he has been a winner everywhere he has played, in Junior and the World Juniors. He defines a moment. He doesn’t let the moment define him.”
Expectations for Ellis have always been huge, but now, in his first full season with the Nashville Predators, the 22-year old attributes the departure of All-Star defenseman Ryan Suter as to why his role has changed from last season.
“I think with losing Suter, it opened some holes for the younger guys, we needed to fill that hole. We are all chipping in collectively. [Kevin] Klein is having a great start. Me, [Jonathon] Blum, and all the defensemen are really pushing here,” Ellis said.
Ellis remains on the third defense pairing, playing with both Hal Gill and Jonathon Blum, and his ice time has increased by over a minute, going from an average of 14:49 in 2011-12 to 15:57 per game this season.
I think he has been playing the same game as he always has, but he is putting himself in positions to make plays,” Hal Gill said about his defense partner. “He is steady and strong defensively. When you are in the right position, it is easy to make plays to transition to offense. He’s done that.”
Gill is not alone in thinking that Ellis is playing the same game as he did last season in 32 contests for Nashville.
“I think [his play this season] is similar to last year. He is always calm and has a lot of confidence. He always knows what to do and he is never too excited or too nervous. I’ve played with him for the last two years. Every game, he is always focused, calm and ready,” Gabriel Bourque said.
Others see improvement in the style of play as well as the skill level Ellis brings to the Predators organization.
“He is always improving. He has very good vision and is playing more physical this year. He looks great out there,” Matt Halischuk said.
“He is getting better and better all the time, and he is going to continue to improve,” Shea Weber said. “He will get even better as time goes by. I think he is going to be effective [on the power play]. He’s a skilled kid who sees the ice very well. He can make plays, and he will get the goals that we are going to need.”
Defenseman Kevin Klein attributes some of the fast start to the season for Ellis to playing in Milwaukee during the lockout.
“He was down in Milwaukee and got to prepare for the season,” Klein explained. “It is great when you are down in Milwaukee, like I did during the last lockout. You don’t really have the NHL looming over your head. You can just work on your game and improve as a player. He has really done that stepped in really nicely.”
Bourque added, “The [AHL] was pretty good this year. That was a pretty good decision. We kept our game shape. We made a good decision going to Milwaukee. It isn’t far away like going to Europe.”
With the exit of Suter, the London, Ontario, native has seen time on the top power play unit playing along side Weber.
“The most important thing is not to rush things,” Ellis said about what he has learned from Weber on the man advantage. “We need to move the puck around. He knows when to shoot and when not to. He shoots it really hard. Obviously, that’s one thing that separates us, but he is the top power play guy and getting a chance to play with him is a great experience.”
Ellis is back to the second power play unit for Nashville, having been taken off the top unit Thursday night against Phoenix. The decision to take Ellis off the top unit was to give Weber an opportunity to play with a left-handed shot in an attempt to open up one-timer possibilities. But Ellis is still seeing power play time with Weber when the captain double shifts on the man advantage.
While Ellis certainly doesn’t own a bullet from the blue line that reaches speeds of over 100 mph, Trotz sees Ellis as being an asset on the man advantage with a decent shot of his own.
“Ryan is a quarterback on the power play. He has a big shot for a little guy. You wouldn’t think someone his size would have a shot like that, but he does. He has great poise with the puck. Those are his strengths and he is active. He reads the play pretty well,” Trotz said.
Poise seems to be a common word used to describe Ellis on the ice, and it isn’t only coming from his teammates. Anaheim Ducks forward Kyle Palmieri’s adjective of choice for Ellis is also poise, and agrees with Trotz that it is in those big games where the 5-foot-10 defenseman thrives.
“He has a certain amount of poise that’s really great for the way he plays. He isn’t the biggest guy, and neither am I. He likes to play under pressure and play in those big moments and big games. That’s what he has done his whole life. I’m sure he will keep that going,” Palmieri said, adding, “He has had a lot of success in his career, both international and in Junior. He is finding his way here in the NHL. I’ve played against him a number of times. He’s a competitor and he loves to win. That is one of those attitudes that can take you far in this league.”
Palmieri played against Ellis at the World Junior Championships in 2010. Palmieri won gold with Team USA, but had to get through Ellis and Team Canada to do it.
World Junior’s teammate and current Edmonton Oiler Jordan Eberle also used poise to describe Ellis.
“He is a great player. He plays in all situations and has so much poise,” Eberle said last March. “He has a very high skill level. He can put the puck in the net. He has a wicked shot for how big he is. The vision on the ice and just the skill level that he has matches any defenseman in the league. He finally has the opportunity to play here and he is doing very well. I knew he would play in the NHL and do as well as he has.”
In 15 games this season, Ellis is currently tied with David Legwand for third in team scoring with six points, including two goals and four assists.
In Junior, Ellis won the Memorial Cup with the Windsor Spitfires in back-to-back seasons in 2009 and 2010. The Memorial Cup playoff runs, as well as the World Junior Championships, have helped Ellis prepare for those big moments.
“There is a lot of pressure and attention on the World Juniors, especially in Canada. It builds you up for moments like this in the NHL. Every game and situation you kind of gain more experience each time. It was a lot of fun to be a part of,” Ellis said.
Winning a gold and silver medal in 2009 and 2010, one of the more exciting moments in recent Canadian World Junior history came in the dying seconds of the semifinal game between Canada and Russia in 2009. Down a goal late in the third period, Eberle scored the game-tying goal with 5.4 seconds left. While John Tavares of the New York Islander got the puck to Eberle in front of the net, it was Ellis that kept the puck in play for Canada.
Eberle gives the Predators defenseman credit for making the play happen.
“Ellis is a huge part of that goal. He is probably the main reason we scored. He made an outstanding play to keep the puck in along the boards. He had the mindset to get it down low,” he said.
The Predators are hoping that Ellis is the catalyst for many more big moments, the moments that Trotz say Ellis defines rather than is defined by.