Late Bloomer Ellis Finds Niche In Nashville

By Jim Matheson
© The Edmonton Journal 2008

EDMONTON, Alberta – Dan Ellis is an overdue success story.

He’s no early bloomer like Carey Price, or even Jim Carey, for that matter.

But he can live with that. He’s in the NHL at 27, maybe to stay, which beats stopping pucks in, say, Omsk, which is literally hockey’s Siberia.

The Nashville rookie, who was an ECHL All-Star and was named the Most Valuable Player of the Kelly Cup Playoffs after helping Idaho win the Kelly Cup in 2004, had considered playing in Russia this season, weary of life in the minors. Now, however, he has a 16-6-2-4 record with Nashville, a 2.45 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage. He’ll likely be in goal against the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday after beating them three times already this season.

Fans are actually wearing his jersey in opposing rinks.

“I was sitting out in St. Louis with a headset on (for a TV interview) and right next to me on the bench a kid had my college (U of Nebraska-Omaha) sweater on,” said Ellis.

“I don’t know if I’d given it to him or his family, but in the interview I joked that I’d paid him to wear it and I carry a few jerseys on the road. You have to get your exposure somehow. I don’t think (New Jersey’s Martin) Brodeur has to pay anybody to wear his.”

Ellis was drafted by the Dallas Stars and jockeyed with Mike Smith, who was an ECHL All-Star in 2003, to see who would get to the NHL to back up Marty Turco.

Smith won, making the move up last year before he was traded to Tampa Bay for goal-scorer Brad Richards last week. Ellis played four years in the minors before signing with Nashville last July.

He’d investigated going overseas just to get away from the bus rides.

“Seems like my entire career has been late. Playing college hockey, then four years in the minors, taking a long road, but the road finally got there. I guess that’s all that matters.

“You learn along the way some things you wish you didn’t have to learn, but valuable things to your character,” he said.

Ellis might envy Price, who’s only 20 and the No. 1 goalie in Montreal after Cristobal Huet’s trade. But, he can also look at Carey, who won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie in 1996 but was out of the league by 1999 after 172 games. It’s never easy, for goalies.

“You’re starting to see a few more goalies becoming No. 1 later, like Dwayne Roloson (in the Oilers’ Stanley Cup run) or (Ottawa’s Martin) Gerber, Mace (Preds’ Chris Mason), former ECHL goaltender Tim Thomas in Boston, (Niklas) Backstrom in Minnesota,” he said.

“Sometimes when you’re younger, it’s a lot to handle, especially thrown into a No. 1 situation like Carey Price (is). There’s a few special guys who can handle it, but a few of us can’t.”

Ellis and Smith certainly knew Turco was the starter in Dallas. He’d waited his turn behind Eddie Belfour for years. Only one of the farmhands was coming up to caddy for Turco, and it was Smith.

“Smitty and I battled it out. He bloomed quicker than anticipated into that role (now a starter in Tampa),” said Ellis.

Ellis waited until he was an unrestricted free-agent last summer and was craving a change of scenery. He signed a one-year deal with Nashville after seriously considering going overseas after last season.

“You play four years in the minors for one team (Dallas), you don’t know how you stand up with other teams in the league,” he said.

“I had spoken to some Russian guys, also looked at Sweden and Switzerland, but luckily Nashville came pretty quickly. I think I signed last July 2.”

Mason replaced former ECHL goaltender Tomas Vokoun last June when Vokoun was peddled to Florida. He struggled earlier in the year but has played 45 games to Ellis’s 30. Both have four shutouts. Right now, the Predators seem to be rotating goalies.

“We go week by week, day by day. I don’t have any favourites,” said head coach Barry Trotz, who looks at wins and losses but also goes by gut.

Whatever happens is fine with Ellis, who’s just tickled to be in the bigs. He’s an easy-going guy.

“There was no pressure coming in on Ellis (to camp) and there’s none on him now. Everything is gravy for him. He thought he’d be in Milwaukee (AHL) all year,” said Trotz.

© The Edmonton Journal 2008