One of the biggest surprises of the 2013-14 season for the Nashville Predators has been the play of defenseman Ryan Ellis. He’s been a steady figure on the defensive unit all season long and has really played the best hockey of his young NHL career so far this season.
Ellis really struggled in the 2012-13 season with the Predators, playing in only 32 of the team’s 48 games and spending some time in the AHL with the Milwaukee Admirals. Ellis had just two goals and four assists in 32 games with the Predators last season, but more importantly did not play very well defensively.
So far this season, Ellis has played much better defensively and has recently been playing much better offensively. Ellis had a goal and an assist on Tuesday night in Nashville’s 4-2 win over the Calgary Flames in another strong performance from the Hamilton, Ontario native.
“Ryan’s been up and down three years now and played some games, and he’s playing very confidently,” said Predators head coach Barry Trotz. “I think he’s finding the offensive game. Defensively, he’s fine.”
There has been a noticeable difference in the confidence that Ellis has been playing with this season as opposed to last season. It’s not like the talent wasn’t there. After all, Ellis was Nashville’s first round selection (11th overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft and was a fabulous defenseman in junior hockey. His game just hadn’t translated to the NHL. This season, however, his game has started to be consistently good at the NHL level.
“I just think he’s not worried about everything around him anymore, how everybody else is doing,” Trotz said. “He’s just concentrating on his game. He’s focusing on his game being really good, and he’s getting good results. He’s shooting the puck a lot more confidently now. He’s all the things that we want. He’s gotten stronger the last couple years, playing with more pace and his hockey IQ is very high. I think those things are all starting to come around, and he’s in a good pairing with Kevin Klein right now.”
Perhaps the biggest factor in the turnaround Ellis has experienced so far this season has been Nashville’s addition of Phil Housley to the coaching staff. Part of the reason Housley was hired by Nashville was to work with Ellis, and it seems like he’s done a wonderful job with that so far.
Housley was a great defenseman in his playing days, amassing 338 goals and 894 assists (1,232 points) in 1,495 NHL games played in a career span that ranged from the 1982-83 season to the 2002-03 season. Like Ellis, who is generously listed at 5’10″, 175 pounds, Housley was also not a very big defenseman. There are a lot of similarities between Ellis and Housley from that standpoint, which is why having Housley around seems to be working out very well for Ellis.
“I can’t put a percentage, but I’m sure it doesn’t hurt,” Trotz said. “Phil was a top, top defenseman, wasn’t overly big as a player when he first came up. He came out of high school. I’m sure he wasn’t fully developed mentally and physically, and Ryan is a smaller guy with a high hockey IQ like Phil so I think there’s a lot of things that can translate. I think there’s a good comfortability there. I think they can talk about things where they are in their career.”
While Ellis has been very good defensively for the Predators so far this season, his offense has been up and down. However, he had a very strong game offensively for the Predators against Calgary. He scored Nashville’s second goal of the game on a blistering slap shot while on the rush, and also fired a shot from the point later on in the third period of the game that was tipped in by Viktor Stalberg.
“Our forwards did a good job driving the net, which as a [defenseman], I know it’s tough to gap up there and hold off because there’s always going to be a guy behind you if he’s due. I just kind of pumped once and got my head up and luckily it went in,” Ellis said of his goal.
The goal was Ellis’ first goal since Oct. 12 against the New York Islanders and just his second goal of the season. However, despite the lack of goals, Ellis has been playing much better offensively for the Predators lately. His decision making with the puck on his stick has been very good, which has led to some opportunities for him and his teammates. Ellis was finally rewarded with some points against the Flames.
“He’s playing well,” said Predators captain Shea Weber after Tuesday night’s game. “Definitely doing some good things. Obviously, he shoots the puck very well. Big goal for us tonight and an assist on Stalberg’s goal as well.”
“The kid’s been great,” said Predators forward Craig Smith. “He’s got a great shot, and he was obviously using it a lot tonight. He did a good job of getting himself open, getting it around defenders and getting it to the hole.”
The Predators have been high on Ellis every since they drafted him back in 2009 so it seems like he’s been around longer than he actually has. The fact is that Ellis only just turned 23 years old on Jan. 3 of this year. There’s still lots of room for growth and improvement in his game.
“Sometimes you tend to forget that he’s a young [23 year old], he’s not 25,” Trotz said. “He’s still growing as a person, he’s still growing as a player. There’s still lots of good upside with him.”