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Ellis shooting his way up Entry Draft rankings

Wednesday, 11.19.2008 / 11:12 AM / 2009 NHL Entry Draft

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

Life can't get much better for Ryan Ellis.

The Windsor Spitfires defenseman is playing on the top pairing on the top team in the Ontario Hockey League and the top-ranked team in the Canadian Hockey League poll.

Oh, and he's also one of the top-ranked defenseman available for the 2009 Entry Draft. Ellis is the No. 7 ranked skater in NHL Central Scouting’s Preliminary Rankings, which were released Tuesday. Oshawa’s Calvin De Haan, at No. 5, is the only defenseman rated ahead of Ellis.

"It's a blast right now," Ellis told NHL.com.

It's all good for Ellis, a 5-foot-10, 173-pound defenseman with electric offensive skills.

"He's got a great shot and he gets it through to the net," said Central Scouting's Chris Edwards. "A lot of guys have their shots blocked, but he's got a real knack for getting it through, and that leads to a lot of tip-in and rebound goals.

"He's a really smart, heady defenseman. His puck movement is excellent. His puck movement and the way he moves the puck around the zone is excellent. He's a real high-end offensive guy."

That's borne out by his numbers, which jump off the page. Midway through November, Ellis has 38 points in 23 games, just two points off the league lead, held by teammate Taylor Hall. Ellis’ 25 assists lead the league.

Ellis is bidding to become just the second defenseman to lead the OHL in scoring in the past 63 years. Bryan Fogarty, who had 155 points in 60 games with the Niagara Falls Thunder in 1988-89, was the last defenseman to take the OHL scoring crown.

One of the players who tried to stop Fogarty that season was a 17-year-old defenseman for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds named Bob Boughner. Today, Boughner coaches Ellis with the Spitfires and sees a few similarities in Fogarty and Ellis.

"I think the controlling factor of the game," Boughner told NHL.com. "He (Ellis) seems to be in on every play defensively and offensively. If you come away from the game and you look at who was your favorite player, who played the best, his name always seems to come to mind. There's plays where he's making something out of nothing. And his biggest asset is his shot. He's got an NHL one-timer, he's got an NHL slap shot, and that's a dangerous weapon."

Boughner isn't so sure Ellis can match Fogarty's achievement, but believes he'll make it close.

"I don't know if he'll finish in the top 1 or 2 or 3, but you'll see him up there," said Boughner. "I don’t know how he can't. We have some top-end pp guys, and that means we get a lot of power plays. And that's 10-12 minutes a game we're going to be on the power play."

Ellis said the scoring title would be a great accomplishment, but he's realistic enough to know that in a league with top-end forwards like Hall, Oshawa’s John Tavares and London’s Nazem Kadri, it's an unlikely scenario. So he's turned his focus toward rounding out his game.

"I think it’s a little too early that I could be leading the league in scoring," said Ellis. "We have guys like John Tavares or Taylor Hall. For now I'm just trying to stay as close to them as possible and play my game. I'm looking for things like my plus-minus to be good rather than the points."

For most offensive-minded defensemen, getting better in their own end always is a goal. But with a plus-30 rating last season as an OHL rookie and a plus-23 thus far in 2008-09, he seems to have a good handle on the situation.

And he's earning all of his gaudy numbers. Boughner estimated Ellis plays 25-30 minutes a night, in all situations, and against the other teams' top lines.

Boughner said what helps is Ellis has a potent package of  intelligence and physicality. Ellis was the league's Scholastic Player of the Year last season. He also plays the game with an edge, despite being of below-average size for a NHL defenseman.

"He's a smaller guy, but he's not afraid of taking the body," said Edwards. "Shows no fear of getting involved in scrums, he's not intimidated."

And, that attitude plays well with those asked to evaluate Ellis’ game, says the Windsor coach.

 
 
"Every night there's 10, 15 (scouts) watching him, trying to critique his game," said Boughner. "For a guy who's not the biggest player, that microscope is on him even more. They're trying to find a fault with his game because of his size, and they can't do it. He's made a few big open-ice hits … (and) he's hitting guys with their heads down and hitting them good. You come away from his game and it's tough to put anything negative down.

"(Scouts) just want to know if you think this guy being 5-10 can do this at the next level, and I tell them the Brian Rafalskis of the world, the Dan Boyles of the world, guys that are so smart, their size didn't matter because they could overcome that because of their smarts."

Ellis also dismisses the talk about his size being a negative.

"The way the game is played now and the way the rules have changed, it's not really an issue," Ellis says. "I take it as an advantage for myself. I throw a couple hits here and there, and they don't think a little guy can throw a big hit and I can surprise them. You just have to think a couple steps ahead of each guy."

There's a bit of irony to the fact that scouts worry about Ellis' size, because growing up, he was always one of the bigger kids on his youth teams. In fact, he was moved from forward to defense at age 9 because his team was missing a few defensemen, and he possessed the right size and ability for the position.

"As a kid I wouldn't say I was the biggest, but I was in the top five bigger kids on the team," said Ellis. "I was always a slow, steady grower, an inch or so a year, and then everyone got growth spurts … I guess I never had my spurt or caught up to everyone."

"He seems to be in on every play defensively and offensively. If you come away from the game and you look at who was your favorite player, who played the best, his name always seems to come to mind. There's plays where he's making something out of nothing. And his biggest asset is his shot. He's got an NHL one-timer, he's got an NHL slap shot, and that's a dangerous weapon."
-- Bob Boughner, Windsor coach on Ryan Ellis

The only other knock on Ellis seems to be his skating, and some might even consider that nit-picking.

"He's not a bad skater, but for a smaller guy … you'd like to see him be a little better," said Edwards. "But I'm sure it's something he's working on. He's not slow; you just like to see him a step better."

Ellis has heard this critique before, and agrees with it -- to a point. He rates his skating a "7 or 8" on a scale of 1-10.

"I don't need to be the fastest guy because I use my head and out-think guys," said Ellis. "It's more my hockey sense that gets me into good position on the ice. My skating isn't bad, but it can always improve."

If his skating matches up with his shot and hockey sense, he and his teammates will continue to live the good life.

"I've only been in the league three years," said Boughner, "and other coaches I talk to, they've never seen a defenseman have an impact in a junior game like Ryan Ellis."

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com.