All-star games give players an opportunity to have fun and play a competitive but friendly game. In minor leagues, it also gives them an opportunity to showcase their skills for any NHL brass in attendance as well. For the Victoria Salmon Kings goaltender Julien Ellis, it was an opportunity to do all of that in the recent ECHL All-Star Game and Skills Competition that took place on Tuesday and Wednesday at Stockton Arena.
"I knew I was coming here about two months ago, so it’s pretty good and I’m pretty proud to have been selected too," Ellis told Hockey’s Future after Tuesday’s Skills Competition. "I have to give a lot of credit to my teammates because we have a great team in Victoria and they’ve helped me a lot."
Coming into the All-Star Game, the Vancouver Canucks prospect has enjoyed an outstanding season with the Salmon Kings, having posted a 16-4-3 record that includes one shutout. His 16 wins currently rank second in the league.
The Sorel, Quebec native was excellent in the Rapid Fire competition, posting eight saves on ten shots for the National Conference team. His eight saves were the most by any individual netminder in the competition. In the Breakaway Relay, Ellis stopped seven shots including a spectacular snow angel-like save on Tyler Doig of the Columbia Inferno.
It was during the Skills Competition in particular that one of Ellis’ greatest assets was on display – his superb athleticism.
"He’s got the ability to make the save not only technically, but when he throws himself out of position he’s got the athletic ability to jump back in and make an unorthodox save. He’s very quick up and down," said Victoria head coach Mark Morrison of his young goaltender.
In the All-Star Game on Wednesday night, Ellis started in goal for the National Conference team and didn’t disappoint. After allowing two goals in the first eight and a half minutes of the opening period, Ellis settled in nicely, though he didn’t get much work, having faced only six shots total from the American Conference.
During his stint in goal, he showed great proficiency in playing his angles well and was solid in his play down low. However, his rebound control was an area that was noticeably shaky at times. It is something that he and his coach admit is an area that has improved but continues to be a work in progress.
"Well, with the new (pro) level here being good and even better going all the way up to the NHL, one of the things that I have to work on is controlling the rebounds because the guys are bigger and faster here, so I’ve got to be quicker in finding the puck through traffic. So I’m working harder on that," said Ellis.
"There are areas that we’re focusing on with Julien and one of them is controlling rebounds and putting the pucks out of the danger zone," said Morrison. "He’s gotten a lot better about clearing his rebounds and steering them in the corners and out of the tight areas."
While he possesses all the exuberance of youth, the 22-year-old Ellis plays a mature, confident game. And it has been something that he’s had to work diligently on since joining the professional ranks from the Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL) in 2006.
"He’s matured a lot. Julien used to get down on himself a little bit when he let in a bad goal or had a bad period and didn’t know how to jump back. Now he has more confidence and experience, and realizes that it’s going to happen, and jumps back into it and refocuses himself. He’s matured as a goalie and mostly it’s a mental thing for him," said Morrison.
As a member of the Salmon Kings, Ellis has split time in goal this season with Billy Thompson.
"Billy is a great teammate that I work with in practice and that really helps me a lot."
"They can both be looked at as starters because Billy also has that ability to be a starter," Morrison said. "I think they feed off of each other a little bit as far as the competitive battle back and forth. I haven’t given that job away to either one of them. I’ve kind of let them battle for it. Neither one of them has really stolen it from the other one. Both of them have played very well and we’ll keep that going as long as possible."
Ellis has also had stints with the Manitoba Moose since coming out of the CHL, and although his time in the AHL has been brief, it has been quite the learning experience for him.
"Last year, I played eight games with Manitoba and this year I’ve only played two periods. I feel much better and more confident now than I did last year. I think I’m playing pretty well here in the ECHL and hopefully I can keep it going and get another chance."
Ellis’ mental game is strong if he’s a good judge of himself.
"I think I can make the big save at the important moment of the game. I can win the game by myself at times. I can bounce back from a bad goal and a bad game pretty well, so I think that’s my strength. I think I’d have to say my quickness in net is an area that I’ve improved in this year. I worked a lot this summer with a trainer back home and can see a lot of progress on that side (of my game)."
One of the challenges that Ellis faces being in the Vancouver Canucks organization is the goaltending depth that exist there already. With Roberto Luongo and Curtis Sanford holding down the big club duties, and Drew MacIntyre and Cory Schneider providing the rock solid tandem between the pipes in Manitoba, Ellis has his work cut out for him in moving up the organizational depth chart. But he takes it all in stride and focuses on the matters at hand with the Salmon Kings.
"Well, I’m not trying to think about that," he said. "I’m just trying to do my job here in Victoria. We have a really good team here and I’m trying to do good things here. I know that no matter where we’re playing someone is there watching me. I just want to do my best here and we’ll see what happens."