NASHVILLE -- Defenseman Ryan Ellis had always appeared destined for something like this. It just took the Nashville Predators defenseman longer than he anticipated.
When the Predators traded defenseman Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadiens for defenseman P.K. Subban on June 29, the natural assumption was that each would slide into the role the other had just vacated, putting Subban with Roman Josi.
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Many felt Subban could combine with Josi to create the most mobile, explosive defense pair in the NHL. That is how the Predators began the season, but it is not how they wound up.
Subban is playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with Matthias Ekholm, and the spot that appeared earmarked for him was eventually claimed by Ellis, a player the Predators have long known was capable of such a role, but one who simply needed a chance.
"He's one of the smartest players I've ever had on a team, just a very savvy player," Predators general manager David Poile said Saturday. "When we made the trade for P.K. the obvious spot for him was to play with Roman. But through experimentation the coaches decided P.K. was better with Ekholm. That's just how it worked out. … We traded a right defenseman for a right defenseman and they are each top players helping their teams. I think Ryan played a valuable role for us last year as well."
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It worked out that way because of how much talent the Predators have on the blue line, and that is largely why it has taken Ellis so long to emerge.
But he has, even if not enough people are aware of it. He was tied for fifth among NHL defensemen this season with 16 goals and has seven points (two goals, five assists) through six games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
He has a five-game point streak entering Game 3 of the Western Conference Second Round against the St. Louis Blues at Bridgestone Arena on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVA Sports). The best-of-7 series is tied 1-1.
"He's a terrific player on both ends of the ice, takes down big minutes against big opponents and has just been so valuable for our team," Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. "[Friday] night is a perfect example, just the minutes that he logs defensively, the willingness to sacrifice his body and block shots and play a dirty game if he has to and be competitive. And then offensively, a game-changer as well. Like I said, I don't think he's catching many people by surprise anymore."
The only reason Ellis ever could have taken anyone by surprise is because his journey has been so long.
The Predators took Ellis, 26, with the No 11 pick in the 2009 NHL Draft. He was coming off a strong performance for Canada when it won the gold medal at the 2009 World Junior Championship, where he had seven points (one goal, six assists) in six games and quarterbacked a lethal power play alongside Subban.
Ellis won back-to-back Memorial Cup championships with Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League in 2009 and 2010, won silver in the 2010 World Junior Championship and played a fourth season of junior hockey in 2010-11. He bounced between the Predators and Milwaukee of the American Hockey League over the next two seasons before finally earning a permanent job with Nashville in 2013-14.
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His average time on ice went from 16:04 that season to 18:59 in 2014-15, 20:54 last season and 23:57 this season, 20th in the NHL. The increases in ice time coincides with the arrival of coach Peter Laviolette in Nashville for 2014-15, and Ellis credits him for how he is playing now.
"As soon as [Laviolette] got here, for all the young guys it was about developing and getting better," Ellis said. "It was more about opportunity, experience and obviously a little bit of confidence. That's I guess the product of that little bit of belief the coaches give and the trust."
Poile had a lot to do with Ellis getting an opportunity; the GM traded Seth Jones to the Columbus Blue Jackets for center Ryan Johansen on Jan. 6, 2016, freeing up room on the right side of the Nashville defense.
Then came the big one in June when Weber left and Subban arrived, which in theory wasn't supposed to create room for Ellis, but in reality has done just that.
The notion that he is in some way replacing Weber, however, makes Ellis very uncomfortable.
"Obviously you're not going to be able to replace a guy like that on your back end so you have to more or less do it by committee," Ellis said. "I think he was a big, key part of this franchise for a lot of time. He was leaned on heavily. But once the trade all went down it was about everyone chipping in to replace him not only on [the] ice, but his off-ice stuff too."
That may very well be true. But it has become clear in these playoffs that the committee has Ellis as its chairman.