Since the Nashville Predators joined the NHL in 1998, only three of their draft picks have earned a roster spot without having first played with the organization's American Hockey League affiliate.
David Legwand, the No. 2 selection in the 1998 Entry Draft, played one game in the expansion franchise's inaugural season. Scott Hartnell, the sixth pick in 2000, did it, but he only scored 2 goals and had 14 assists in 75 games.
And last year, backup goalie Anders Lindback made the jump without the benefit of spending time first with the Milwaukee Admirals, but he was 22 and had played in Sweden's Elite League.
Enter Ryan Ellis. The 20-year-old defenseman won the Ontario Hockey League's player of the year award in 2011, finishing with 101 points (24 goals and a Sergei Zubov-like 77 assists), which tied him for fourth in the league. The others ahead of Ellis in the points race all were forwards.
Ellis only stands 5-feet-10 and 172 pounds, and yet Predators assistant general manager Paul Fenton would not rule out Ellis's chances of making the roster. Preds rookie training camp begins on Sept. 9.
"Odds are saying that he's going to be in Milwaukee, but I would put nothing past this kid because he does have the ability to make our team," Fenton said. "Will that be right? We'll let that play out in training camp and see how close he is."
Besides country music stars, Nashville also has become something of a factory over the years for developing top defensemen. Dan Hamhuis, signed by Vancouver as a free agent last summer after playing his entire career in Nashville, was on the Canucks' top shut-down pair for a team that went to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. Kimmo Timonen, who spent his first six NHL seasons in Nashville, was second in time on ice per game in the 2010 playoffs for Philadelphia, which made it to Game 6 of the Cup Final that season.
In 2010-11, Nashville's Shea Weber was a Norris Trophy finalist and he did not even lead all Preds defensemen in plus/minus during the regular season or in time on ice in the playoffs. Those honors went to 2010 U.S. Olympian Ryan Suter, who finished plus-20 in 70 games and averaged 28:51 in the postseason.
With Ellis having yet to play in his first NHL game, it might be unfair to place him in the same category as the above mentioned players. However, Fenton said, "We think he's going to become a star," and added that if Ellis were two inches taller he would have been the first player drafted in 2009 instead of the 11th.
Ellis played his junior hockey with the Windsor Spitfires, just across the Detroit River from where an elite defenseman of similar stature -- Brian Rafalski -- plied his trade for the last four seasons until electing to retire recently at age 37. Ellis says he patterns his game after Rafaski's and Ellis' offensive production would seem to bear that out.
Asked to compare Ellis to another top defenseman of similar size and skills, Fenton agreed that Ellis is a lot like Winnipeg All-Star and 2010 Swedish Olympian Tobias Enstrom. Fenton called Ellis an "elite thinker" and praised his puck-moving ability.
It seems as if Ellis will at least have the chance to make the roster.
Photo by Aaron Bell
"I think, obviously, a goal of mine is to make the Preds right away, but I think, as an organization, development is their main aspect," Ellis said recently after a session at a Preds' annual prospect camp, the third one he has attended. "That's what they kind of pride themselves on, so you've got to think in terms of that, too.
"Obviously, I'd love to make it, but there's a process that everyone goes through. I think that's just the way things are done in Nashville."
When Nashville reluctantly sent big young defenseman Cody Franson to Toronto as the price for the Maple Leafs to also take injured center Matthew Lombardi and his $3.5 million annual salary in the deal, it left something of a hole on the Preds' back end. Nashville got veteran Brett Lebda (who only played 41 games last season) in the deal and the Preds also have 35-year-old Francis Bouillon, who is capable of filling that role, but "The Cube," as he is affectionately known, only played 44 games last season because of concussion issues.
As was the case in the playoffs, Jonathon Blum figures to be one of Nashville's second-pair defensemen, in all likelihood with veteran Kevin Klein. Blum, 22, was a rookie last season and only skated in 23 regular-season games but ended up playing an average of 3:32 more per game in the playoffs than Franson. In some ways, Blum, another former first-round pick, might be the model for Ellis, as Blum did not make his debut until Feb. 22.
"That's kind of exactly how Nashville works," Ellis said. "They kind of give you a year of experience in the minors and when they feel you're ready, they bring you up. And I think that was a prime example. Blum was ready and he flourished and he became a big part of the team."
"Odds are saying that he’s going to be in Milwaukee, but I would put nothing past this kid because he does have the ability to make our team."
-- Predators Asst. GM Paul Fenton
Ellis knows that to make the jump, he will have to adjust the speed and size of the NHL. His former junior teammate Cam Fowler was able to do just that. Fowler had a phenomenal rookie campaign last season with Anaheim, beginning the season as an 18-year-old. Ellis said he communicated with Fowler at times during the season.
Both players had the benefit of spending some time under former Spitfires coach and co-owner Bob Boughner, the former NHLer who spent last season as an assistant with Columbus.
With the track record that Windsor and the Predators have had, Ellis certainly will have the right pedigree. If he does not make the jump right away, he will go to Milwaukee where he will learn under respected former long-timer NHLer Kirk Muller, who most recently was an assistant with Montreal.
"Obviously, I'm not 6-5, I'm not 240 pounds like Shea Weber or the big guys in this League who play defense," Ellis said. "I'm never going to be able to bench press like Shea Weber or anything like that. For me, it's all about being smarter than the next player. I have to outthink and, I guess, anticipate better than the rest what I have to do in order to be a player."