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A Lot To Prove

by Jay Levin / Nashville Predators

A Lot To Prove

Excuse the Predators goaltenders if they’re a little snarly. After the scrutiny they’re enduring this off-season, they’ve earned a little slack. But all commentary aside, this season is shaping up as an important campaign in the young careers of the three men currently at the top of the totem pole – Dan Ellis, Pekka Rinne, and Mark Dekanich.

Ellis, the late-season hero, recently signed a new two-year contract with the Preds on the same day as the team traded his 07-08 partner in the crease, Chris Mason, to division rival St. Louis. The two transactions indicate that Ellis will come to training camp in September with a guaranteed NHL contract for the first time in his pro career. Every other season he was on a two-way NHL/AHL deal and forced to battle throughout camp for recognition. Now he’s the top dog. But that doesn’t mean things will be easy for him. Stud prospect Pekka Rinne, a two-time AHL All-Star, appears to be ready for the rigors of the NHL and has that “workhorse starting goalie look” after playing in an AHL league-high 3840 minutes with Milwaukee.

Subtle Differences Make
A Big Impact

On paper, this year’s goaltending situation looks very similar to the situation the Preds were in last summer. But while Chris Mason struggled with the transition from elite No. 2 netminder to NHL starter, the Predators are confident things will be different with Dan Ellis as he tries to make a similar leap.

“Hopefully Dan and I have both learned from watching what Chris went through and that will help us avoid the same hole that Chris did,” Predators goaltending coach Mitch Korn stated. “The pieces just didn’t fit together nicely for Mase last season. Other than the first two games, Mase never really got momentum. And I’m a big believer of momentum. When Dan Ellis finally went in, on that road trip, if you think about that Vancouver game and that Edmonton game and the back-to-back shutouts, really helped him get momentum and the team really played miraculously in front of him. He didn’t make any mistakes and they protected him well. And it allowed him to generate momentum, generate confidence and it was all really a wonderful climb from there."

While getting the opportunity to observe those pitfalls firsthand will give Ellis and the coaching staff a reference point to prevent a repeat, there are other benefits working in Ellis’s – and the Preds’ – favor this time around. For one the team in front of Ellis. Last season the roster had undergone a major overhaul and players needed to adjust to new roles both on the ice and in the locker room.

Team captain, and No. 1 defenseman, Kimmo Timonen was gone and then Shea Weber – the player many expected to step into most of Timonen’s on-ice responsibilities – suffered a pair of early season injuries sidelining him for a combined 29 games. By many of the players’ own admissions, it took nearly half the season for the players – particularly the defensemen – the become comfortable with their adjusted roles.

This summer, the top six defensemen from ’07-08 are each already under contract for ’08-09 with the team extending qualifying offers to Kevin Klein and Ville Koistinen, the other two d-men to spend all last season with the big club.

Plus there are subtle differences in the styles Ellis and Mason play in net, some of which Korn feels helped Ellis to succeed last season.

“I think one of the things that helped Dan Ellis a great deal was his ability to handle the puck. His ability to get to the puck and to move the puck probably eliminated some scoring chances against him that maybe ended up as goals on Chris Mason. There were times where Elly was able to move the puck and eliminate that.”

So while the script may look similar this year, there are subtle differences which should make a huge difference in the results.

-Jay Levin,
For Ellis, this season is a big chance for him to prove to others “he belongs.” He entered the 2007-08 season with just one game of NHL experience to his credit, signed as the No. 3 goaltender to provide depth in Milwaukee. However, Ellis wouldn’t give the Predators a chance to send him to the AHL, posting a strong training camp and carrying that over into his rare opportunities early in the regular season.

“Dan Ellis had a better camp than Pekka,” Predators goaltending coach Mitch Korn said. “Pekka was good enough to play in the NHL, too. Ellis was just a hair better.”

Ellis slowly gained more confidence, got on a roll, and carried it through to one of the more impressive – and improbable – seasons in team history. Ellis posted a 233:38 shutout streak from March 22 - 30 as part of his 17-6-3 ending kick to lead the Predators into the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. As a result, Ellis ended up leading the NHL in save percentage during the regular season … and then backed it up by posting the league’s best save percentage during the playoffs.

“You look at how far Dan Ellis came because you see what he did at the end of the season,” Korn said. “You don’t lead the NHL in save percentage in both the regular season and in the playoffs by accident. You don’t do it because you had four or five good games. That’s pretty special to lead the National Hockey League in save percentage.”

Rinne remembers training camp last season – when then-recently-signed-depth-goaltender Dan Ellis beat him out for the first shot in Nashville and didn’t relinquish the spot – and is determined not to allow any challenger to repeat the feat this time around.
“mitch on Pekka”

In fact, Rinne’s ’07-08 season finished with such a kick that he could seriously push Ellis for ice time next season.

“Competition is a good thing. Look at (the week of Development Camp). Jeremy Smith was better during our camp because Chet Pickard was there. Competition pushed Jeremy to a new level and I hope competition continues to push all of our goaltenders to new levels.”

And that may be the magic elixir to prevent the struggles which affected Chris Mason last season from rearing their head with Ellis this season. While Mason, who had a history of success as Tomas Vokoun’s understudy, entered last season as the coaches’ clear No. 1 netminder without a proven No. 2 option, Ellis appears to be the frontrunner for the No. 1 job this season, but the coaching staff gained a tremendous amount of confidence in Rinne – between his performances in Milwaukee and his head-turning play during practice with the big club during the Preds late season playoff run.

Next there’s rookie pro Mark Dekanich, a 22-year old fresh off a solid collegiate career at Colgate, highlighted by a tremendous senior season. While many first-year professional goaltenders would have the luxury of being able to grow into the job, Dekanich won’t have the luxury of time. While the Preds are likely to sign a veteran No. 3 option to help Dekanich along in Milwaukee, the rear view mirror shows some highly regarded prospects closing in fast.

Jeremy Smith, a 2007 second round pick, is likely to play his final year of Canadian Junior in ’08-09. Already signed by the Predators, Smith is probably pegged for the AHL in ’09-10. Atte Engren, a Finnish netminder selected later in the ’07 draft, appears earmarked for the Finnish Elite League in ’08-09, but is targeted as a potential North American import for ’09-10. Same goes for Anders Lindback, a late-round pick in the ’08 NHL Draft, who is expected to compete for a starting job in the Swedish Elite League in ’08-09. While it’s a long-shot that both Engren and Lindback would come over to North America next season, the chances are very strong that at least one of them will make the jump. That means Dekanich has a smaller window to prove his skills to the Preds NHL and AHL coaching staffs.

And then there’s the Chet Pickard factor. NHL goaltenders tend to take a little longer to develop than skaters – and the Preds are definitely planning on being patient with their young prodigy … and his development would not be hurt by spending two more seasons in Canadian Juniors – but Montreal said many of the same things about Carey Price, the goaltender to whom Pickard is most commonly compared. This past season Price strong-armed his way to the forefront of the Montreal goaltending situation with his on-ice play.

“I think it would be really neat if Chet’s one of the Canadian goalies (and he appears to be a front runner) and Jeremy Smith’s one of the US goalies and they play against each other.” Korn said. “I think, for the Nashville Predators, that would be really neat. And you talk about pressure – when you play for your country, no matter what you do, there’s naturally self-imposed pressure – but my goodness, it’s Canada, it’s the national game up there, it’s unbelievable the television coverage –people are glued to the TV and it’s unbelievable the pressures placed on Team Canada’s goalies. This year the World Junior tournament is in Canada, in Ottawa.”

All that depth means that the ’08-09 campaign is shaping up to be an important season in the young careers of each of the Predators goaltenders … and none of them are willing to give in easily.

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