The ‘hid­den gems’ emerge

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - JONAS SIEGEL

The Nashville Preda­tors were named af­ter the sabre-toothed tiger bones dis­cov­ered un­der­neath their fu­ture arena in 1971. The crea­ture had been ex­tinct for at least 10,000 years.

It took 20 years, ages in hockey terms, for the fran­chise to fi­nally reach the West­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nal, and the spot­light has un­earthed some of the team’s bestkept se­crets. Swedish speed­ster Vik­tor Arvids­son, P.K. Sub­ban run­ning mate Mat­tias Ekholm and Ryan El­lis, the highly dec­o­rated for­mer first round pick who’s av­er­ag­ing more 24 min­utes per-game in the play­offs, have emerged on the big stage.

“I don’t think there’s near the press cov­er­age that other teams may have, which I guess re­sults in hid­den gems so to say,” said El­lis, who sports a brown beard likely longer than all oth­ers this spring.

In the case of El­lis, it’s more of a re-emer­gence.

The Hamil­ton na­tive was a point­pro­duc­ing ma­chine on the Wind­sor Spit­fires squad that briefly ripped apart the On­tario Hockey League with back-to-back Me­mo­rial Cup wins. He had 89 points in 57 games in his draft year, best­ing the next clos­est de­fend­ers — Sub­ban, who played for Belleville, and fu­ture Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tal John Carlson, who was with Lon­don — by 13 points.

The Preds grabbed him with the 11th over­all pick in 2009, but over his first three sea­sons in the NHL, El­lis scratched out only a sup­port­ing role — he av­er­aged 14-16 min­utes — on a Nashville de­fence loaded with aces like Shea We­ber, Ryan Suter, Seth Jones and Ro­man Josi.

Op­por­tu­nity even­tu­ally opened up. Suter left for Min­nesota via free agency; We­ber was dealt for Sub­ban and Jones was traded to Colum­bus for Ryan Jo­hansen — a move made be­cause El­lis and Ekholm were deemed ready to as­sume greater roles, gen­eral man­ager David Poile said at the time.

El­lis, who had ca­reer-highs with 16 goals, 38 points and an av­er­age of al­most 24 min­utes dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, cred­its his emer­gence to the Peter Lavi­o­lette-led coach­ing staff, which re­placed Barry Trotz, the only coach in fran­chise his­tory, in 2014. Lavi­o­lette’s up­tempo style has found a fit with El­lis — a slick puck-mover and trans­porter — “but the big­gest thing, I think, is just the trust that the coaches have given me and the op­por­tu­nity as well.”

“I’d never re­ally re­ceived that un­til they got here,” said El­lis, who’s signed for two more sea­sons at a mild $2.5 mil­lion US cap hit. “My game kind of took off from that be­lief in them and the chance they gave me.”

Be­cause he was such a pro­lific point-pro­ducer be­fore he came to the NHL, El­lis be­lieves he had to shed the per­cep­tion that he was a weak de­fen­sive player. He’s prob­a­bly the weak­est link among the cur­rent top four de­fend­ers on the Preds, but he man­aged to lead the club with 137 blocked shots dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, adding 34 more so far in the play­offs.

Beyond in­creased op­por­tu­nity, El­lis cred­its Phil Hous­ley, the Hall of Fame de­fence­man who serves as an as­sis­tant coach, for help­ing him and the Preds de­fence reach “a whole new level”.

Though he never saw Hous­ley play live or even on TV — he was born dur­ing the 1991 sea­son when Hous­ley racked up 76 points in 78 games for Win­nipeg — El­lis has caught high­lights of his coach. “I know he’s re­mem­bered as one of the best skaters from de­fence — his puck sense, his puck-mov­ing abil­ity and his of­fen­sive in­stincts are re­ally one of the best in the game to ever play from a de­fen­sive po­si­tion,” El­lis said of Hous­ley, who ranks fourth all-time among NHL de­fend­ers with 1,232 points.

“The op­por­tu­nity to learn from some­one like that, you re­ally can’t re­place the value he brings to play­ers and their game.”

El­lis’s own break­out didn’t re­ally come this spring or even this sea­son. It was last year that truly stepped into a more prom­i­nent role, play­ing mostly be­side Ekholm, another one of the Preds’ “hid­den gems.” Plucked from a tier-2 Swedish league with 102nd pick in the same 2009 draft as El­lis, the 26-year-old Swede has been ef­fec­tively com­bat­ing top lines along­side Sub­ban in the post-sea­son.

Then there’s Arvids­son, another late draft week­end steal and third mem­ber of the dan­ger­ous Nashville top line, which also in­cludes Jo­hansen and Filip Fors­berg. Arvids­son was the old­est player picked at the 2014 draft (he was 21), plucked 112th over­all by the Preds from the Swedish Hockey League.

The 24-year-old tied for the team lead with a ca­reer-high 31 goals and 61 points this sea­son — he kills penal­ties too — be­fore adding another seven points in 12 play­off games, in­clud­ing a pair of as­sists in Nashville’s Game 2 de­feat in Anaheim on Sun­day night (the se­ries is tied 1-1).

“Re­ally, our team as a whole and all the play­ers on it have been con­tin­u­ously get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter ev­ery year,” El­lis said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

Nashville Preda­tors’ Vik­tor Arvids­son (38), of Swe­den, Colin Wil­son (33), Ryan El­lis (4) cel­e­brate with Mat­tias Ekholm, sec­ond from right, af­ter Ekholm scored a goal against the Dal­las Stars in March.

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