It is said that you can tell a lot about a man by his dog. That is not the case with Ryan Ellis. At least not when it comes to his hockey career.
The 27-year-old Nashville Predators defenseman and his wife, Kaitlyn, have a two-year-old Rottweiler, a breed known for its brutish size, which, according to the American Kennel Club, “observes the outside world with a self-assured aloofness.”
Ellis’ self-confidence always has been evident, but in his case that belief manifested itself more in the manner of a Jack Russell Terrier. He never considered the possibility he was – in terms of traditional metrics – too small to measure up on the sport’s biggest stage no matter how many people tried to tell him otherwise. And he certainly is not aloof when it comes to his place in the dressing room. Instead, he is a central figure whose leadership qualities were as impossible to ignore as the absurd numbers he put up during his junior days with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires.
Now in his eighth NHL season, he is still too small in terms of height and weight. The simple truth is he always will be.
What has changed is he has a contract that measures up to those of some of the biggest stars, biggest producers and – yes – biggest bodies in the game. The eight-year, $50-million extension Ellis signed shortly before training camp goes into effect next season and runs through the end of 2026-27, when he will be 36.
No longer does he have to nip at any proverbial ankles in order to get recognized. He finally has the financial clout that gives him a bite equal to whatever barking he has done in recent years. “There’s only a certain amount of time to make your money, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get a 15-year career,” Ellis said. “A typical career in hockey is three years, and you have to take full advantage of making that money for your family going forward. People can call you selfish and this and that, but at the end of the day, if you retire at 35, you have a lot of years left to look after your family and your kids and your kids’ kids.”
And here’s the thing: Ellis actually could have gotten even more money had he played this season and become a UFA on July 1.
As a primary member of Nashville’s leadership group (he has been associate captain since the start of 2017-18) and a homegrown product, Ellis proudly noted he elected to take a little less in order to help keep together the majority of a roster that played in the 2017 Stanley Cup final and won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2018. “It starts with the city,” he said. “The fans, the organization, the lifestyle here, it suits hockey players. You see a lot of hockey players that are quiet, humble and just want to fit in. That’s a lot of our team, and Nashville is the perfect place to do that.”
For the record, Ellis is listed at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds. That means he is the shortest of Nashville’s defenseman and the slightest by 20 pounds. Still, he cuts a sizable figure on and off the ice. He plays on the top pairing with team captain Roman Josi and has a chance this season to join Josi and Shea Weber as the only Nashville players ever to average more than 25 minutes of ice time per game for an entire season. Through 25 games, he was at 24:53.
To that point, Ellis’ ice time has been steadily increasing since he joined the Predators midway through 2011-12. After playing 14:50 per game as a rookie, then 16:23 in 2012-13 and 16:04 in 2013-14, Ellis jumped up to nearly 19 minutes in 2014-15, and then up to nearly 21 minutes in 2015-16. And the more he plays, the more valuable he becomes to the team. Ellis had a career-high average ice time of 23:57 in 2016-17, which dropped slightly to 23:21 last season as he recovered from injury.
“I’m sure Ryan’s size has come up once or twice as he’s moved up the ladder,” said Nashville GM David Poile. “Now he’s a player that plays big minutes every night in every situation. So there’s nothing he can’t do. Honestly, it was probably a process to always have to prove himself at every level. And he’s proved himself at the highest level. On the biggest stage. He is one of the top defensemen in the National Hockey League.”
Since the start of 2015-16, Ellis ranks 35th among NHL blueliners with 114 points but has played fewer games than any of the top 34. Most notably, off-season knee surgery kept him sidelined until almost halfway through last season. His plus-64 rating over that span is second among all defensemen.
And in the 44 games he did play in 2017-18, Ellis was a plus-26, one shy of the franchise record. Nashville went 30-8-6 after his return, all of which enhanced his reputation, particularly within his own team. “I don’t think it really kicks in until you have a meeting or you have a big game coming up and people are looking at you to say something or do something,” Ellis said.
Actually, they’re looking up to him. – David Boclair
WORLD JUNIORS TO WATCH
ANAHEIM DUCKS: Isac Lundestrom is on a quest for a gold medal to go along with two silvers (last year’s WJC and the 2016 world under-18s) and a bronze (world under-17s in 2015). The two-way faceoff ace will take on more of the offensive load after the graduation of so many Swedes.
ARIZONA COYOTES: The good thing about Barrett Hayton‘s well-rounded style is he can be a valuable piece for Canada even if he’s not slotted in the top-six or power-play units. The surprise fifth overall pick out of the Soo in 2018, Hayton plays a responsible 200-foot game – and he’s been producing.
CALGARY FLAMES: Adam Ruzicka and Milos Roman have both played in two WJCs for Slovakia, but they may end up watching countryman Martin Pospisil steal the spotlight. The Flames’ first pick in 2018 wasn’t until 105th overall, but they found a gem who’s close to two points per game in the USHL.
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: Adam Boqvist should be a force for Sweden in his first WJC. His puck skills are the most dynamic of any defenseman in the tournament. He’s also cut his teeth in the OHL with London, so the competition, not to mention Vancouver’s NHL-sized ice surface, won’t feel too foreign.
COLORADO AVALANCHE: The Czechs iced a breakout line of Martin Kaut and Filip Zadina between Martin Necas at the 2018 WJC and may get all three back. The all-first-rounder trio will be even stronger since each spent the fall in the AHL. Kaut is the most versatile, equally adept at scoring and setups.
DALLAS STARS: Suiting up for Canada will give center Ty Dellandrea a welcome dose of winning culture, as he toils for an awful Flint team in the OHL. Because he’s an excellent skater with two-way intelligence, he can fit on any line in any role. He’ll be a Swiss Army Knife.
EDMONTON OILERS: Playing seven games with the Oilers – and scoring his first NHL goal – has raised the bar of expectations for Evan Bouchard. The mobile blueliner has great hockey sense and a solid work ethic. He’s been a force since returning to OHL London and may play on Canada’s top pair.
LOS ANGELES KINGS: Rasmus Kupari was held off the scoresheet as a 17-year-old in last year’s WJC, but he’s been scoring regularly in Finland’s Liiga for two seasons now. He’ll join forces with Karpat teammate Aleksi Heponiemi as the go-to forwards for Finland. Kupari can be an elite-level scorer.
MINNESOTA WILD: Filip Johansson adds to a stacked Swedish defense corps. He’s similar to future Wild teammate Jonas Brodin in that Johansson plays a steady, mobile game but doesn’t bring much offense. He’s tidy in his own end, making him a good partner for a full-throttle offensive D-man.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS: Playmaking pivot Jachym Kondelik was viewed as a project entering the 2018 NHL draft. The German-born Czech is a staggering 6-foot-6 and 227 pounds – and, at 18, he’s still growing. Scouts have questioned whether he can keep up in the NHL, so the high-skill WJC is a good test.
SAN JOSE SHARKS: Ivan Chekhovich was a terrific seventh-round draft selection in 2017. He led the Russians in scoring at the world under-18s in 2017 and has been a force with Baie-Comeau in the QMJHL for three seasons. Chekhovich had two points in two games for Russia in the Jr. Super Series.
ST. LOUIS BLUES: Now 19, 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, with a WJC and almost 100 AHL games, Klim Kostin is the WJC’s most mature player. The Russians expect him to manhandle checkers. Will younger competition light his scoring spark? He’s a physical AHLer, but his offense has disappointed.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS: Local focus will be on Quinn Hughes, but two other defensemen drafted in 2018 have a chance to show their wares. Moose Jaw’s Jett Woo is battling to crack a deep blueline for Canada while Toni Utunen, taken 130th overall, is a stay-at-home type for Finland. He’s with Tappara.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS: It’s hard to believe Cody Glass has spent parts of five seasons with Portland in the WHL yet is still eligible for the world juniors. The crafty playmaker, drafted sixth overall in 2017, is projected to be an offensive leader for Canada. He’s closing in on 300 points in the WHL.
WINNIPEG JETS: Dylan Samberg might be a first-rounder if teams redrafted the 2017 class. He impressed at last year’s WJC and won an NCAA title with Minnesota-Duluth. He’s not flashy but moves fluidly for a big guy. He missed one game for the Bulldogs this year – they allowed seven goals.
This story appears in the January 28, 2019 of The Hockey News magazine.