When the Nashville Predators elected to trade No. 3 defenseman Kevin Klein last week to the New York Rangers, management made the decision in no small part because of the improved play of Ryan Ellis.
It caught the eye of general manager David Poile that Ellis and the rest of the defense corps played well without Klein, a veteran of 403 games with Nashville, when he missed two games with the flu. In the three games preceding the trade Ellis totaled two goals and two assists.
"We've always felt highly about Ellis' future," Poile said of the 11th pick in the 2009 NHL Draft. "We just haven't been able to put him in that position to make a contribution that he's making recently. But it's interesting that in at least two of those games Kevin Klein didn't play."
Ryan Ellis' hockey IQ is what has gotten the Predators defenseman to the NHL and it is starting to show more as he's assumed a larger role leading up to and after the departure of veteran Kevin Klein. (Photo: John Russell/NHLI)
An honest assessment of Ellis' minutes indicates he mostly has played a No. 6 role on the Predators this season (he averages 14:27 per game in time on ice) while he and rookie Seth Jones man the points on the No. 2 power-play unit. Ellis does not kill penalties (he has logged a total of 1:44 of shorthanded ice time in 52 games). Nonetheless, with a plus-4 rating he is the only defenseman who has spent the entire season with the Predators with a positive plus/minus rating. Offensively his 13 assists and 16 points are career-bests, and his three goals tie a career-high.
Recently coach Barry Trotz felt confident enough in the 2011 Canadian Hockey League player of the year to match Ellis against opposing teams' top-six forwards. Trotz compared Ellis to Philadelphia Flyers four-time All-Star Kimmo Timonen, another smaller defenseman whom Nashville developed (Ellis is listed at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds; Timonen at 5-10, 194).
In some ways Ellis has shown progress simply by staying with the Predators all season and not being assigned to the Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League, as he was in each of his first two pro seasons. In 2011-12 he played 29 games in Milwaukee and last season he was assigned to Admirals between March 25 and April 4.
Trotz said he can see development in the game of the 23-year-old Ellis.
"I think with Ryan his game is maturing," Trotz said. "He's got great hockey IQ. … He is playing more with pace. He's got his strength level up the last couple of years. I think he sort of docked to a different plateau and then he sort of leveled off for a while, and now I think he's just starting to raise it to the next plateau and that just comes with experience."
Ellis' hockey IQ is what has gotten him to the NHL and it is starting to show more and more. In a 4-2 win against the Calgary Flames on Jan. 14 Ellis demonstrated that hockey IQ in the form of a goal he scored. He entered the zone with the puck and saw that right wing Craig Smith was driving to the net. Ellis later said he knew that meant the opposing defenseman would have to sag to Smith and could not gap up on Ellis. Ellis kept his head up, pumped once and unleashed a 33-foot slap shot that beat goalie Karri Ramo high to the blocker side.
Ellis said he is starting to shoot more.
"I kind of got away from it," said Ellis, who had 73 goals and 314 points in 226 games in four seasons in the Ontario Hockey League. "I was kind of looking for passes more than anything. If you want to score goals you've got to shoot the puck. Whether it's scoring a goal or just being good defensively, whatever it takes to win."
Perhaps some of the maturity Ellis has experienced comes from being in closer proximity to captain Shea Weber -- literally. In the Predators dressing room at Bridgestone Arena, Ellis sits next to Weber and often seems to be found around the captain outside of the room as well.
Ellis said he has learned from Weber.
"Just the way he carries himself," Ellis said. "He talks a lot. He's a great guy to be around in the locker room. Obviously it's an honor sitting next to him. Whether it's just something to do with the game or away from the rink, he's been great all year and during my entire time here."
While Ellis and Weber excel at the offensive aspect of the game, physically they could not differ any more. At 6-4 and 233 pounds, Weber is one of the NHL's most imposing and toughest defensemen. Still, Ellis said he has emulated elements of Weber's game.
"I think he just makes heads-up plays," Ellis said. "I think he's always aware of what's going on on the ice and being a defenseman I think you have more of a luxury of seeing the play and how it develops. I think he sees the ice really well. He talks a lot out there and I think as a young guy you're kind of shy to talk and communicate to your teammates. But the more you do that the better off everyone is."
In the three games since the Predators traded Klein to the New York Rangers for defenseman Michael Del Zotto, Ellis has begun to take on more of that No. 3 role. Still, when Poile made the deal he stated that he believed Nashville's three right-side defensemen for years to come would be Weber, Jones and Ellis.
The Predators and Ellis just need to show patience to get the payoff they are looking for.
"I think he's feeling comfortable," Trotz said. "He doesn't lack confidence; that's one thing that Ryan doesn't lack. If he lacks anything it's patience. His patience and his diligence -- he's got a lot of diligence -- he works at it and tries to get better at it. I think everything's sort of coming together for him. Learning some patience, he's stayed diligent, hockey IQ … getting bigger, stronger, those types of things, they're all sort of coming together at the right time so his career can really stabilize and I think really have a strong career."