RIMOUSKI, Que. – Ryan Ellis has shown he can excel in junior hockey and now he’ll see how much that has impressed the NHL scouts.
The five-foot-10 defenceman from the Windsor Spitfires is one of the top players eligible for the June 26-27 draft in Montreal now competing at the MasterCard Memorial Cup, where the scouts section in the stands at the Colisee de Rimouski has been busy all week.
Drummondville Voltigeurs defenceman Dmitry Kulikov is another projected first round draft pick, while the Rimouski Oceanic’s six-foot-two winger Jordan Caron also may be among the top 30 selections.
Kulikov placed 11th among North American skaters in final rankings released by NHL Central Scouting, while Ellis was 16th and Caron 21st, but the lists made by individual teams can vary greatly from the league rankings. It depends on what the team needs and what its scouts see.
The stocky Ellis is the power-play quarterback on the No. 2-ranked junior team in Canada, and he was a standout on the Canadian squad that won gold at the world junior championships in Ottawa last January.
He was named the OHL’s outstanding defenceman this season when he scored 22 goals, led the league with 67 assists and was plus-52.
Were he two or three inches taller, he would likely be ranked much higher, but that doesn’t faze the Freelton, Ont., native.
“I’ve heard all sorts of things about my size,” Ellis said this week. “You have to accept me for who I am.
“I don’t think I’m going to hit six-foot-four any time soon, so it’s not a problem for me. If it’s a problem for someone else, I guess I won’t be going there, but they all know what they’ll get.”
They’ll get a quick-footed defenceman who likes to rush the puck and who is very good at shifting positions and finding openings to get shots on goal during power plays.
Spitfires general manager Warren Rychel said NHL clubs can’t lose out by drafting him.
“Maybe at the beginning (the scouts) were selling him short, but not any longer after what he’s done at the world juniors,” said Rychel. “He plays big.
“His hockey sense is very high. In the NHL world now, you’re looking at 15 minutes per game on average on the power play. He’s going to be huge. He’s a thinker. He’s got a great shot and he gets better all the time.”
Handling an NHL-calibre forecheck may be a problem for a small defenceman, but Rychel said Ellis can still get a little bigger and stronger and he is eligible for two more years of junior hockey.
John Tavares, whose London Knights lost to the Spitfires in the OHL playoffs, and six-foot-six Swedish defenceman Victor Hedman are expected to be the top two picks in the draft.
Others likely to go high are forwards Matt Duchesne of the Brampton Battalion, Evander Kane of the Vancouver Giants and Swedes Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson and Jacob Josefson.
The six-foot-one, 195-pound Kulikov is a skilled rearguard who joined the Voltigeurs from Russia this season to adapt to the hockey and the lifestyle in North America. He arrived in Drummondville with “almost zero” English and now speaks the language quite well.
The 18-year-old also won the QMJHL’s top defenceman and rookie of the year awards with 12 goals and 50 assists in 57 games.
Some feel his draft status may be harmed over fears that Russian players may choose to go home to play in the Continental Hockey League (KHL), as Alexander Radulov of the Nashville Predators did, but Kulikov insists he is in North America to stay.
“I came here to show that I want to play in the NHL,” said Kulikov. “’I don’t want to go back to Russia to play in the KHL. It’s my dream to play in the NHL since I was a kid.”
After the Memorial Cup, which ends Sunday, comes the NHL scouting combine May 25-30 in Toronto, where teams will put prospects through a barrage of physical and psychological tests. They include sometimes nerve-wracking interviews with NHL scouts and managers.
The league has invited 104 players, including six now at the Memorial Cup _ Kulikov, Ellis, Caron, and defencemen Jesse Blacker of Windsor, Tyson Barrie of Kelowna and Gleason Fournier of Rimouski _ to the combine.
“It’s going to be exciting,” said Ellis. “The interviews are something to experience and go though, knowing that’s the first step to the NHL.”
Other players ranked by Central Scouting who are playing in the tournament are Drummondville’s Gabriel Dumont and Stephane Lefebvre and Kelowna’s Stepan Novotny and Collin Bowman.
One player who will have to wait another year for the draft experience is Spitfires forward Taylor Hall, who some believe will be the first overall pick in 2010.
Hall is a quick, elusive skater and playmaker.
“He’s probably the best skater I’ve ever dealt with,” said Rychel, a former NHL forward. “His ability to get loose pucks is phenomenal.
“His speed is unbelievable and he’s very driven. He wants to be a pro.”