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Preds' Ellis showing he's not all about offense

by John Manasso
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- During a Jan. 14 game against Philadelphia, Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds, all 6-foot-2 and 183 pounds of him, was barreling down the left wing with the puck as he neared the faceoff circle in the Nashville Predators' zone and began to cut in toward the goal.

Predators rookie defenseman Ryan Ellis took the correct angle and moved directly into Simmonds' path. At that point, Ellis stopped and sort of bent over, and Simmonds toppled to the ice like a man falling off a building with a spectacular crash.

It was a textbook open-ice hip check by the 5-foot-10, 21-year-old player suiting up for just the eighth time in his NHL career. To this point in his young career, Ellis has been that -- textbook -- and if his first 12 games are any indication, that trend would appear likely to continue.

Ryan Ellis
Defense - NSH
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 4 | PTS: 6
SOG: 17 | +/-: 4
Ellis has 6 points and a plus-4 rating in his first dozen NHL games heading into Monday's game against the Blue Jackets.

"The guys in pro, even in the American league, are a lot bigger than in junior," Weber said of Ellis' transition to the NHL after 17 points in only 26 games this season with AHL Milwaukee. "Obviously, the way he's played, the amount of points he's got down in the American league, you saw the transition wasn't too hard on him and hasn't been thus far in the NHL."

Because of the position he plays, much has been made of Ellis' size. Nashville selected him with the 11th pick in the 2009 Entry Draft, and Predators assistant general manager Paul Fenton has said that if Ellis were bigger, he probably would have been selected much higher.

Paired with veteran Francis Bouillon, the League's shortest defenseman at 5-8, they form the NHL's shortest defense pair in front of one of the League's tallest goalies, the 6-5 Pekka Rinne.

Soon, though, hockey fans will be less likely to mention Ellis' size and more likely to talk about his play. When hockey people talk about Ellis, they talk about his hockey smarts -- like the kind of positioning that helped him eliminate Simmonds with that hip check.

"He's smart," Weber said. "Everybody talks about his size, but he just reads the game really well, so he doesn't put himself in bad positions. He puts himself in good positions so he's not on the back side of a big guy."

Predators coach Barry Trotz, himself once an under-sized, offensive-minded junior-hockey defenseman, said the most difficult thing for a defenseman like Ellis to learn is to know when to make a high-risk offensive play and when not to. Offense comes naturally for those like Ellis, Trotz said, while defense is why they are on the ice.

"They think their value is totally on offense," Trotz said. "Where I think they have to learn is that while their offense is valuable, their defense is an absolute. They have to have that, but managing that situation, game-management skills -- the great ones know who do it. Just pure offensive ones don't know how to do it."

Trotz also said young defensemen must learn to deal with the deception of NHL forwards -- how a player turns his stick to freeze a defender or how they can look a defender off pucks. He gave the example of a recent game when shifty Dallas forward Mike Ribeiro undressed Preds rookie defenseman Roman Josi for a goal because Josi was not familiar with Ribeiro.

"For young defensemen, it's just everything happens a little bit quicker, which is normal," Trotz said of the transition to the NHL. "I think it's the deception part and the defending part more than the offensive part."

Since Ellis made his debut Dec. 26, he has been a minus player in just three games. It seems he's a fast study.

"I think I've always watched hockey," he said. "I've probably seen every one of these players play before, except for maybe the younger guys in the League. I have a basic idea of most of the guys, and I've been watching the NHL for a long time and you pick up on it quick."

"Everybody talks about his size, but he just reads the game really well, so he doesn't put himself in bad positions. He puts himself in good positions so he's not on the back side of a big guy."
-- Shea Weber

Trotz also has been quick to reward Ellis' offensive instincts, which have been outstanding. He led all Ontario Hockey League defensemen with 101 points last season, the second time in his three junior seasons that he led OHL blueliners in points. He also led all defensemen in scoring at the 2011 World Junior Championship with 10 points in seven games.

Since coming up, Ellis ranks third among the team's defensemen behind the injured Ryan Suter and Weber in average power-play ice time at 2:30 per game, accounting for a good chunk of his 15:34 per game. Because Weber and Suter -- when healthy -- log so much ice time, Trotz has put Ellis and Josi on the second power-play unit to keep his top pairing fresh.

Yet Nashville's second-ranked power play has not taken much of a step back. Four of Ellis' 6 points have come with the man advantage. Not every rookie defenseman up from the minors steps right into power-play time.

"I'm happy to get any time I can," Ellis said. "Whether I can help score a goal or just play good defense, I take it all in stride and try to enjoy myself."

Ellis' play has been so strong that he has forced some tough decisions by the Predators' coaching and management staff. Ellis came up when Weber and Kevin Klein were injured. When they returned, however, it was Jonathan Blum, who skated in 12 playoff games last spring, who was sent to the AHL. Then, after Ellis sat out one game, he pushed veteran Jack Hillen out of the lineup.

"It's nice to know that I didn't go down right now," Ellis said. "It's something you have to play through. You go through it for camps and all that stuff, knowing whether you make the team or not, so you just try your best."

Weber said one of the hardest parts about his transition to the NHL was getting called up on three different occasions just to play one game and then getting sent back down before he stuck for good. He said it wore on him mentally.

For now, that doesn't appear to be something that Ellis needs to worry about.
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