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The Back-Up Plan

by Michael Smith / Carolina Hurricanes
Dan Ellis and Justin Peters began the 2012-13 season as the Charlotte Checkers’ goaltending tandem, providing one of the best one-two punches in the American Hockey League.

Michael Smith
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Five months later, that duo claimed the same duties with the Carolina Hurricanes after Cam Ward was lost for the season with a third-degree MCL sprain.

With a healthy Ward expected back for the 2013-14 campaign, the question of who will serve as his back-up remains, and it’s a question that could be unanswered for some time.

“That is still open,” said team President and General Manager Jim Rutherford. “I do think that there is a little bit of an advantage there for Dan Ellis with the way he played and even at times the way he played in the second half. But Peters is under contract, he gave us some good games and he’s in the organization.”

Ellis, 32, is an impending unrestricted free agent. During the work stoppage, the Saskatoon, Sask., native signed an AHL tryout contract (that was extended in December) with Charlotte. He graduated to a one-year, one-way NHL deal in January.

Peters, a group six unrestricted free agent last summer, is entering the final season – a one-way deal – of his two-year contract.

“We have a few guys that are one-way contracts with one year left, but that doesn’t automatically mean they are going to make the Hurricanes,” Rutherford said. “Guys are going to have to come in and work at it.”

In his end-of-season press conference, Rutherford also didn’t rule out a third party vying for the back-up job.

“Whether it’s [Peters] and Ellis fighting for that job at camp or we go out and get somebody else, we’ll have to see how it falls,” he said.

But, considering the body of work from Ellis and Peters and their familiarity with the organization, the two are likely the top candidates for the job.

Ellis and Peters each played in 19 games and started 16 for the Hurricanes in the shortened season. Ellis posted a 6-8-2 record with a 3.13 goals-against average, a .906 save percentage and one shutout. Peters posted a 4-11-1 record with a 3.46 goals-against average, a .891 save percentage and one shutout.

Prior to joining the Hurricanes at the conclusion of the work stoppage, Ellis logged 18 games with Charlotte, going 8-7-2 with a 2.46 goals-against average, a .922 save percentage and two shutouts.

It was an opportunity he wasn’t even sure he’d have after coming off a season in which he played just 10 games, having suffered two mid-season injuries, including a groin tear.

“There was a little bit of uncertainty coming back from the injury I had and also just not having a contract anywhere,” he said. “But, actually, it worked out perfectly. It gave me a chance to play, play with a great organization, get to know people here and just kind of carry it over into the season.”

Goalie partners for three months, Ellis and Peters fostered a symbiotic relationship on the ice and a close personal relationship off the ice.

“It’s awesome. Petey and I get along really well. We got along great in Charlotte, and that allowed it to carry through to where we are here,” Ellis said. “It gave us an opportunity to get to know each other. We get to know what the other person likes to do on a gameday or on a practice day, and you just try to help each other out.”

“Right from day one in Charlotte, we got along great,” Peters said. “He’s a great partner to have, just like Wardo. They’re both easy going. It makes coming to the rink a lot easier and a lot more fun.”

For Peters, 26, playing alongside veteran goaltenders like Ward and Ellis has created unparalleled learning opportunities.

“I’m very fortunate to have good partners like that. You learn a lot throughout the season and you’re just there for each other, too,” he said. “It’s a different position than everyone else, and you can only relate to other goalies. So it makes it a lot nicer having good partners like Wardo and Elly.”

When Ellis joined the Hurricanes in January, Peters took the reins as the Checkers’ starting goaltender, starting 16 of the team’s next 20 games. In 37 total games, Peters was 22-12-1 with a 2.29 goals-against average, a .921 save percentage and six shutouts. He was named the Western Conference’s starting goaltender in the AHL All-Star Classic.

Peters, recalled on March 4, made his first start of the season for the Canes the next night against Buffalo. Just over two weeks later, he became the Canes’ starter after Ellis inadvertently lacerated his leg while making a save in the waning minutes of the March 21 contest against New Jersey. Once Ellis returned to regular game action, the two split starts down the stretch.

“I learned a lot and gained a lot of experience getting game action,” Peters said. “I just try to take the positives away from the experiences and learn from the ups and downs.”

“It was great to play a lot of games, but you never want to be in that position where your No. 1 goalie like Cam gets hurt,” Ellis said. “The additional injury that I had this year by kicking myself with my skate, that slowed me down to the point that I wasn’t able to contribute the way I wanted to until four weeks later.”

With neither goalie able to cement himself as the starter in Ward’s absence, this summer will be a bit of a waiting game.

Under the security of a contract, this offseason holds a bit less uncertainty than last for Peters, even if his first unrestricted free agency period lasted a mere, formal hour.

The future for Ellis, who spends his summers in Omaha, Neb., is somewhat more ambiguous.

“There’s always uncertainty any time you go into a situation where you’re a free agent. Decisions lie with management,” he said. “I’ll have a chance to convey my hopes and thoughts on the season, on moving forward. But those two thoughts have to match. It was a great year in terms of being able to come here and try to help out, but also it depends on what their needs are and what they’re looking to do next year. Teams are always looking to retool and make changes, and you’re not always part of it. But hopefully I am.”

When he was completely healthy, Ellis proved to be a reliable goaltending option, something Rutherford acknowledged in his end-of-season press conference.

“I do feel that we had a good one-two punch in the first half of the season with Ward and Ellis,” he said. “That was working very well.”

And given the choice, Ellis would like to stay in Raleigh.

“I like it a lot here. I’ve bounced around so much the last few years, it’d be nice to kind of stick with one team for a little bit. I like the make-up of this team. I like the organization from the top down,” he said. “It’d be nice to continue that, and that’s my hope.”

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