By Chadd Cripe
The Idaho Statesman
BOISE, Idaho – Idaho Steelheads rookie goaltender Dan Ellis has two objectives for the next four months.
Win the Kelly Cup.
Make the Dallas Stars roster.
Don’t bet against him in either venture.
Ellis, unflappable since rejoining the Steelheads two games into their playoff run, is among 10 NHL-contracted goalies who were on ECHL rosters at season’s end.
He hopes to add to the Double-A league’s legacy of grooming goalies for the big leagues. The Stars are expected to audition their three minor-league prospects during training camp this fall for the backup job behind veteran Marty Turco.
“That’s something that will be my goal throughout the summer,” Ellis, 23, said. “Right now, I already have a goal, and that’s to win a championship.”
Ellis and the Western Conference champion Steelheads begin the final leg of their championship quest Friday and Saturday in nearby Estero against the Eastern Conference champion Florida Everblades.
At press time Wednesday, the Steelheads had been traveling for 9 1/2 hours and hadn’t reached the Fort Myers, Fla., area. Once they reached their destination, it would make the longest trip in franchise history, 2,787 miles.
They might have been playing golf instead if not for Ellis. He returned from a three-month call-up to Utah of the American Hockey League, and briefly Dallas, with Idaho trailing Las Vegas 2-0 in the best-of-five opening series.
He shut out the Wranglers in two of his first three pro playoff starts, and has looked like a rookie just once, in Game 1 of the Pacific Division Finals against Alaska.
He’s 9-2 with an ECHL-best 1.82 goals-against average and .941 save percentage.
“He’s not one of those guys who says, ‘Hey, I’m carrying this team,’ … even though he is,” Steelheads backup goalie Blair Allison said. “He has been playing unbelievable for us.”
Ellis also might be the key piece of evidence that the Steelheads need an affiliation next year, warts and all.
Wanted: NHL goalies
NHL-contracted goalies backstopped all of the ECHL’s final four teams this postseason. None finished higher than third in their division — proof of the old adage about a hot goalie in the playoffs.
Florida’s Rob Zepp has a Carolina Hurricanes contract. He’s 8-1 in the playoffs.
NHL teams sign a stable of goalies and assign them to AHL and ECHL teams because they only have room for two on their own rosters. Dallas had five goalies under contract this year.
“I don’t think you necessarily have to have (an NHL-contracted goalie), but personally I think it helps,” Florida coach Gerry Fleming said. “They see something in these young guys, and they come down here with an opportunity to play and prove themselves.”
Ellis, a second-round pick in the 2000 NHL Draft, was the centerpiece of the Steelheads’ affiliation with Dallas and Utah in their first ECHL season. His name was tossed out by the Dallas brass at the press conference to show the kind of talent the Steelheads could get.
He also was one of the major frustrations of the arrangement that saw so many players go back and forth to Utah that the team never jelled until the postseason.
Ellis began the season with Idaho, but didn’t play a regular-season game in the ECHL after Jan. 11. The Steelheads opened the playoffs with an emergency backup in net for Game 1 against Las Vegas.
Ellis’ playoff success, however, makes it likely the Steelheads will sign on with Utah and its new NHL affiliate, Phoenix, next season.
Ellis counts $500 against the Steelheads’ $10,000 weekly salary cap as part of an arrangement that encourages affiliations. He would cost “considerably more,” coach John Olver said, as an ECHL signee.
“From a salary cap standpoint, it’s helpful,” Olver said, “as well as you are getting a player who is highly motivated to succeed. For him, this is just a step toward his ultimate goal.”
The ECHL might seem an ocean away from the NHL, but the gap is small for goalies.
Thirty-one goalies who played games in the NHL this season also have played in the ECHL, including David Aebischer (Colorado), Patrick Lalime (Ottawa), Johan Hedberg (Vancouver), Arturs Irbe (Carolina) and Olaf Kolzig (Washington). That’s 27 percent of the total ECHL alumni who played in the NHL in 2003-04.
Ellis was one of eight goalies who played in the ECHL and NHL this season.
“It does show that you can make it from the (ECHL),” Ellis said. “It’s a really good training ground for goaltenders. You see a lot of shots, and you’re put in a lot of different situations.”
Ellis endured plenty this year.
He was solid in 23 games for Idaho, inconsistent in 20 games for last-place Utah and living a dream on one thrilling night in Los Angeles, when he won his only NHL game.
Ellis started for Dallas on Feb. 18 to relieve the overworked Turco while backup Ron Tugnutt was injured. The Stars beat the Kings 4-3.
Sometimes, he pined for Idaho.
“It’s hard to mentally prepare when you don’t know if you’re going to play on any given night,” Ellis said. “… There were times in Utah when I just wanted to come back here and play constantly and get 10 games in a row as opposed to playing three out of 10 games. I’m glad to be in the situation I’m in now.”
It’s unfamiliar territory. Ellis says his playoff past is full of “first-round exits everywhere.”
With four more wins, he’ll be one of the hottest commodities in hockey — a championship goalie.
“It’s unbelievable experience for me right now,” Ellis said. “I’m just trying to take it all in and build a solid base for the future. One thing you can’t really teach a person is how to win, and learning that here so far has been a great experience.”
He’s the only Stars goalie still playing. Dallas went out of the NHL playoffs in the first round, and Utah didn’t even qualify in the AHL.
First-rounders face off
That should pay off when Ellis does battle with 21-year-old Jason Bacashihua, a first-round pick in 2001, and 22-year-old Mike Smith, a fifth-rounder in 2001, in training camp. Neither has played in an NHL game.
“This is a big steppingstone for him,” Idaho captain Jeremy Mylymok said. “This will open a lot of eyes to be a rookie and come in and play as well as he has. He’s a special kid.”
Teammates and coaches rave about Ellis’ poise and professionalism. Olver remembers watching him take notes while listening to a self-help tape on the team bus early in the season.
“He gives me the impression of a guy that does not get fazed by anything on the ice,” Stars goaltending coach Andy Moog said in an Ellis feature on dallasstars.com. “Good, bad or indifferent, he comes and plays, living in the moment. I don’t think anything gets in this kid’s head.”