Take a look at Nashville Predators blueline depth chart. If your eyes bug out of your head, you’re forgiven.
The defense corps’ present and future are blindingly bright. Shea Weber, the game’s most complete player at his position, leads the way, usually paired with rapidly improving, well-rounded Roman Josi. A phenom named Seth Jones joined the fray last year, making the team as a teenager months after Nashville took him fourth overall. Big, steady Swede Mattias Ekholm looks like he’s an NHLer for good after a few years marinating in the American League. And GM David Poile added bruising veteran Anton Volchenkov on a one-year deal this off-season.
Rounding out that top six is the somewhat forgotten man: Ryan Ellis. Amid the headlines in recent years stolen by Ryan Suter’s departure, Weber’s offer sheet and Jones’ arrival, Ellis has faded into the background. Perhaps that’s why, at first glance, a five-year deal paying him $2.5 million annually seems like a lot, more so in term than cap hit. Ellis? Five years? Did he deserve it?
Nashville drafted Ellis 11th overall in 2009 and, by most accounts, he projected as an offensive phenom, albeit an undersized one at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds. Two years later he finished his junior career as a Windsor Spitfire with a whopping 101 points in 58 games. He represented Canada at the World Junior Championship three times. He rated as the No. 11 overall prospect in the NHL and No. 4 defenseman in Future Watch 2012, ahead of Jonas Brodin, Brendan Smith and Justin Schultz. At the same time, Ellis took five years to stick in the NHL full-time. Would a two-year “prove it” bridge contract have made more sense for Ellis, a restricted free agent? Montreal gave P.K. Subban one. Toronto gave Nazem Kadri one. Columbus gave Sergei Bobrovsky one. And all three had accomplished more when they signed their deals than Ellis has to this point.
Still, Ellis is just 23. He owns elite raw tools as a puck-moving defenseman with crisp passing and a big point shot. He tallied 27 points in 80 games on a non-playoff team that struggled to generate offense last season.
Poile said the Predators and Ellis’ camp looked at two-, three-, four- and five-year pacts before settling on the latter.
“You just never know where a negotiation is going to go,” Poile told THN. “There are only two things you talk about, and that’s money and term. In conjunction with that, it’s where the player fits into your organization, and how much you believe in him. I couldn’t have told you last week we were going to end up in that position, but that’s where we ended up.”
Was the long term a reward for effort to date? Or a gesture of faith in future improvement for someone deemed to have such a high ceiling out of the draft?
“I hope and believe it’s a little bit of both,” Poile said. “Ryan played really well at the end of last year. I believe there’s some really good quality to his game, especially the offensive part of the game, which he’s always been so good at. Obviously when you sign someone for five years, you’re expecting continual improvement.”
Ellis will never be mistaken for a shutdown guy. His deployment last season suggests Nashville has no illusions about it, either. According to Behind The Net, Ellis started 53.2 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, third-most on the team and about 10 percent more than top pairing Weber and Josi did. The only Nashville defenseman with a higher offensive zone start percentage was the departed Michael Del Zotto, who plays a one-way style similar to Ellis’ and was deemed expendable.
But when you have Weber, Josi, Jones, and Volchenkov ahead of you, do you need to play shutdown hockey? Insulating Ellis to let him do what he does best isn’t such a bad idea. And, talking to Poile, you get the sense he knows something the rest of us don’t. Maybe we’re about to see Ellis’ offense really unleashed under new coach Peter Laviolette, who runs an offense-first game plan, which is the inverse of what Barry Trotz’s scheme was. If that happens, $12.5 million over five years becomes a steal of a deal in a hurry.
“The timing is perfect for Peter coming in and allowing Ryan to, to use your words, unleash his potential, because he can make some dynamic plays and he really thinks the game well, especially on the offensive side of it,” Poile said. “So if we’re going to be a more offensive team this year, certainly one of the players I’d be turning to would be Ryan Ellis to help make that happen.”
Poile said he sees Weber and Josi still locked in as a duo, but that it wouldn’t surprise him if Laviolette tried many different permutations with the other pairings. And while any GM in the world would be tickled to build around Weber, Josi and Jones, Poile insists Ekholm and Ellis are crucial blocks in that foundation, too.
“We just believe Ryan and these guys are good young players, and when you get a chance to tie them up for a longer period of time, it makes sense,” Poile said. “It’s a leap of faith on both sides.”
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin