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Julien Stands Up To The Challenge

by Staff Writer / Vancouver Canucks

By: Kevin Kinghorn

For years the Canucks stock of young goaltenders has made the cupboard at Old Mother Hubbard¹s place look like the Magic Pantry.

With the exception of Rob McVicar - who has seen little more than the bench at the NHL level - every goaltender to suit up in Vancouver this year has been acquired via trade.

"It's something we wanted to address," says Stan Smyl, the Canucks Director of Player Development. "We made the decision a couple of years ago to really zero in on our goaltending and we have."

The Canucks spent a pair of picks (26th and 189th overall) in the 2004 draft on two goaltenders that could keep the larder stocked for a few years at least.

Cory Schneider, the higher pick, has received most of the attention and, barring a meteor strike or another equally inane accident, will backstop the U.S. squad at the upcoming World Junior Championships.

Less known, or at least less heralded is Julien Ellis, a 6-foot, 186-pound French Canadian keeper who plays for Shawinigan in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

"He's not as big as other goalies, but he was always a reflex type of goalie and you can really see his quickness here," says Smyl, peering down at a Team Canada workout from the last row of section 'K' at the Pacific Coliseum.

More than his statistics, it was the way Ellis racked up 32 wins and a .903 save percentage with the Cataractes as a 17 year-old that attracted the Canucks.

"He was a guy that had won games for Shawinigan," says Smyl. "He was literally the difference in some of the games. When you see a goaltender winning games like that, you really take notice."

Ellis is hoping he can do the same in the inter-squad scrimmage and attract the attention of Team Canada head coach Brent Sutter.

"I think that [Carey] Price is ahead of everyone because he's got the big name," says Ellis, sizing up the competition. "If he has a good camp here, he's got a great chance to make the team and be the number one goalie. For the rest of us, we have to battle hard to beat him and be number one."

If Ellis is able to dethrone Price, or at least make enough of an impression to earn second spot ahead of Penticton's Justin Pogge and Calgary's Devan Dubnyk, he'll face an added pressure playing in Vancouver, a city he hopes to call home.

"I think it's a good challenge for me because all the fans will be here and all the coaching staff," says Ellis, who is inexplicably nicknamed 'Jud.' "It's like a boost for me."

A little extra motivation wouldn't hurt. The road Ellis traveled to get to Vancouver hasn't exactly been the paved kind.

Ellis watched his stock drop like Enron shares prior to the 2004 draft after struggling at the Canadian Hockey League Prospects game. He allowed four goals on 14 shots and wound up being drafted in the sixth round.

"He's had some disappointments in his career early on," says Ian Clark, Team Canada's goaltending consultant who also works with the Vancouver Canucks. "He was drafted later than he wanted to be, and had been invited to the prospects game and had a rough time there. But since then he's showed tremendous resiliency."

Despite his size (he's two inches shorter than the next smallest goaltender at camp), Clark says Ellis has a natural gift for making "the tougher saves when things get out of hand a little bit."

"He has a large butterfly component to his game, but he also has a great blend of athleticism, instincts and reactivity off his butterfly - which is really something all goalies seek."

That ability helped Ellis win the Jaques-Plante Trophy as the QMJHL goaltender with the best goals against average (2.41) last season. He also led the league with a whopping .921 save percentage.

"Last year we had a pretty good season, but without Julien, we were in trouble," says Rene Mapte, assistant coach with Shawinigan. "We were the third worst offensive team, but we had the second best defense, and there was only one reason for that - because Julien was there."

This year the Cataractes sit in the middle of the pack after 34 games, and Ellis has fallen back in both save percentage and goals against average.

"If you only look at the stats, he's not the best so far," says Mapte. "A couple of goalies may have better numbers, but they have a better defense in front of them. You can't look at just the statistics. For sure he's one of the two best goaltenders in the league."

For the next few days at least, Ellis will have to be one of the best two goaltenders in the country.

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