CORAL SPRINGS, Fla.
-- The third time may be the charm for Ryan Ellis
That's the hope for the Nashville Predators
' first-round draft choice from 2009, who has attended training camp with the club the last two years, only to be returned to the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League.
Ellis finished last season in the American Hockey League with Nashville's affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals. That step-up appeared to be a smooth transition for the 20-year old, who arrived in time for the playoffs and appeared in seven games and contributed 1 goal and 1 assist.
So, is that enough seasoning to enable him to make the jump to the National Hockey League this year?
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There is no question that Ellis has nothing left to prove in the junior ranks, as his list of accomplishments is long and impressive. Prized as an offensive-minded defenseman with a strong shot and the vision and hockey sense to quarterback the power play, Ellis led the Spitfires to back-to-back Memorial Cups in 2009 and 2010 and along the way he collected a hatful of honors, including being named to the First OHL All-Star team, earning the Max Kaminski Trophy as the top defenseman in the OHL in 2009 and the Red Tilson Trophy in 2010-2011 as the OHL's most outstanding player, previously won by Predators veteran David Legwand
in 1997-98, one year prior to when Legwand made the same jump from the OHL to the NHL that Ellis is now attempting.
Ellis also collected 100 points (24 goals, 76 assists) in 2010-2011. That marked the first time in over 17 years that an OHL defenseman scored 100 points in a season, and his career 314 points erased a Windsor scoring record for defensemen that was established 34 years ago by Joel Quenneville
Ellis also has plenty of international competition under his belt. In fact, one way to slow this speedy skater would be to force him to play while wearing his medal collection. Ellis could don three gold medals he won in 2008, with the World U17 Hockey Challenge, the IIHF World U18 Championship and the Ivan Hlinka
Memorial Tournament. Those go along with the gold medal he won at the World Junior Championship in 2009 and the two silvers for 2010 and 2011. He is currently the leading scorer for a defenseman in the 34-year history of the tournament and is the Canadian team's all-time assist leader.
Ellis has credentials and is an offensive force, without question. In fact, scouts have said that there are few rookies at any position who are more feared when they are in possession of the puck than Ellis.
So, what can possibly hold him back? His size. At 5-foot-9, 179 pounds, Ellis is small for a defenseman and, although he will bulk up some in future, the Freelton, Ontario native is unlikely to get any taller. And although that hasn't concerned Ellis, it has been a point of interest for observers, but apparently not to the Predators' organization.
"We don't look at it as if his size was a deficiency at all," Nashville assistant GM Paul Fenton
said. "The thing with Ryan is that he is going to challenge for a job and whether it's now or a little bit later, He'll be the one to determine that. We've probably got four solid defensemen in place and then we've got six guys vying for three spots and Ellis is one of them."
In his defense, Ellis points to Brian Rafalski
, who was also considered too small for the NHL yet overcame his 5-foot-9 stature to compile an 11-year NHL career with New Jersey and Detroit, while being named to the All-Star Game twice. He also refers to his record-setting career at Windsor.
"To this point, not a lot of guys who are 6-foot-4 are doing what I did in juniors," Ellis said. "He (Rafalski) was about my size and look what he accomplished. There's always room for smaller guys in the NHL. People doubted him and Marty St. Louis, too, and they proved a lot of people wrong. Whether you're 6-foot-4 or 5-foot-9, you have to be confident and play your own game."
Ellis put his game on display tonight, at the 2011 Florida Rookie Tournament against the Tampa Bay Lightning
prospects, as he showed several end-to-end rushes, made numerous precision passes and ran the power play with confidence from the blue line.
One thing is clear; Ellis' talent is not in question. As to his future, that's up to him.
As Fenton pointed out, "We never have been an organization that will rush a guy and we like to say that they're ready when they're ready, and we'll let Ryan determine if he's ready or not."