The old adage states, "That’s why the games are played on the ice." By all rights, the Windsor Spitfires, who have held the top spot on the CHL rankings for most of the past season — including entering the year as the pre-season NO. 1, should have waltzed through the Memorial Cup. The season hasn’t gone according to plan, with the club losing their first two games of the tournament and eliminating them from Cup contention.
But all is not lost for one Spitfire who has already tasted victory at the elite level. The Spitfires’ lengthy playoff run has allowed Ryan Ellis to take center stage.
Ellis, who turned 18 during this year’s gold-medal march at the World Junior Championships, hasn’t torn up the Memorial Cup competition, with just one goal in two games. But it’s been about the only low in a season that’s been peppered with highs.
"I think with the deeper we’ve gone as a team, the higher I’ll go in the draft," Ellis said. "The draft started out in my mind, but if I’m thinking about it it’s in the back. Having a great playoff run and making the Mem Cup, that’s all I can really stand on right now. It’s fun playing around the leagues like this."
If this is the denoument of a stellar season for the Freelton, ON native, the story leading to this point has been incredible. And the epilogue will come when Ellis hears his name called on Friday, June 26 during the first round of the NHL entry draft in Montreal.
Windsor bench boss, and OHL coach of the year, Bob Boughner explained that his young blueliner has handled all the pressures incredibly well.
"It is tough," Boughner said. "For these kids, obviously, their dream is to make it to the NHL. Ryan knows he’s going to be a first-round pick, probably in the first half of the first round, whether it’s as early as six or seven, or late as 13, 14, so I don’t think he’s too worried about what’s going to happen at the draft. He’s a kid that’s really focused on taking all this pressure — and he knows he’s got a lot of pressure on himself, because he’s the offensive catalyst for our team — he knows he’s got to be good every night for our team to win, and that’s a lot for a 17-year-old, but he’s dealt with it great."
Ellis finished the season with 89 points in 57 games, including 22 goals (11 of which were scored on the power play) and adding 67 assists. He finished second in the league with a plus-52 rating and he’s added 31 points in 20 playoff games, including 23 assists. For his efforts, Ellis skated away with the Max Kaminsky trophy as the OHL‘s top blueliner. He also joined his WJC teammate P.K. Subban on the league’s first All-Star team. But Ellis is no stranger to success. Last year, en route to earning a spot on the OHL’s all-rookie squad, he had 15 goals and 48 assists in 63 games. Prior to that, Ellis’ minor midget squad took the league’s title.
Despite a pristine resume, Ellis was passed over until the 22nd selection in the 2007 OHL draft. He was passed over that season for the same reason why questions linger about Ellis’ upcoming draft status — his size. Generously listed at 5’10, the defender understands that, for some, size still matters in the NHL.
"I think guys are still going to look at it, they’re all going to have their opinions, and everyone’s entitled to their opinions," Ellis said. "But a lot of guys have proven other people wrong and they’ve proven how good smaller guys can be, whether they’re 5’9, 5’10, or 6’4, or 6’3 — players are players, and if they’re good enough to play in the NHL or not, it all depends on just their hockey smarts, speed, and all that other stuff. It’s got nothing to do with size, really.
"But size obviously helps," he added, laughing.
While conceding the size issue, Boughner countered that Ellis has other attributes that make up for any physical measurements he may be missing.
"I mean, the game has gotten bigger and faster, but what he lacks in that he makes up because he’s so smart," he said. "I think there’s room for those kind of guys, especially a guy who can control your power play.
"Let’s face it, let’s look at the NHL, all the scoring is huge on special teams, and he’s a guy that will help any team that drafts him. Sometimes the big guys are great, but they’re very limited, and they’ll move pucks up, but what Ryan adds on the offensive side of the puck more than makes up for it."
Those are attributes that have been noticed, and appreciated, by Ellis’ teammates.
"He controls the tempo of the game for us — there’s not too many guys in the game who can do that," teammate Greg Nemisz, Calgary’s 2008 first-round selection, said. "He can slow down the game, or he can speed it right back up because he’s such a great puck-mover. He’s a great guy, he’s pretty laid back, and the guys really like him.
"He’s such a great puck-mover and he makes everyone around him that much better. He’s taken a step forward this year, he gets there every day. He just loves hockey — he’s the first guy on the ice at practice and usually one of the last off of it."
Ellis’ blueline partner echoed those sentiments, adding that Ellis makes it easy to play the game.
"I play with Ryan and I love playing with him out there," New Jersey’s 2008 seventh-round selection and Windsor team captain Harry Young explained. "Everybody thinks that he’s just that power play guy — and he’s great on the power play, he is. But also he plays great defensively. He thinks the game very well. He’s just a very smart player at such a young age. I just started playing with him [in the second round of the playoffs] and it’s been great playing alongside of him. He adapted well to me, he communicates well with this partner, and you’re never afraid when he’s out there.
"A lot of those offensive guys, you’ve got to be afraid because you’re going to have to play defense-first, because they’re going to be all offense, but he can go both ways. He’s very smart defensively."
In light of Windsor’s less-than-stellar Memorial Cup performance, the highlight of Ellis’ season has to be his inclusion on Team Canada’s gold-medal-winning squad. Just 17 at the time, Ellis became front-page fodder after head coach Pat Quinn created a seventh-blueliner, power-play-specialist position for Ellis. He finished his tournament with seven points (six assists) in six games.
"I think it obviously took a lot out of me at the World Juniors. I didn’t play a whole lot, but it was a great experience and I had a lot of fun playing with the guys there," he said. "It was a lot of fun and just having someone like that in your corner and making a spot just for me, it means a lot to me. For the most part, I think [Quinn]’s had a lot to do with me and moving up the rankings. That experience is going to be with me for the rest of my life."
His OHL club has already reaped the benefits from Ellis’ WJC experience, Boughner said. "I think he came back very confident. He’s a kid that maybe before, or during the first half, he wasn’t sure if he was going to make that team, it seemed like the weight of the world was lifted off of his shoulders," he said. "He won a gold medal for his country and he got all this attention, and then when he got back he was focused on being a Windsor Spitfire and helping our team. I think you’ve seen that during the last half of the season — we struggled without him and he’s a big part of what we’re trying to do here."
And Ellis said the pressure-packed WJC helped him prepare for the club’s lengthy Memorial Cup run — and to prepare for the upcoming draft.
"It was a little more pressure there. Every game was do or die — you were playing the best Americans, Russians, Team Sweden. I think they were powerhouses. It’s comparable to that, but a series is a little easier than a one game, do or die," Ellis explained. "I made a lot of new friends there and memories that are going to last with me forever. I think I learned from a lot of different guys there. I roomed with [Thomas] Hickey — he went fourth overall and he’s not the biggest guy either, so I think just learning from him, and doing what he does both on and off the ice, I can learn a lot from guys like that."
Boughner explained that Ellis’ success in pressure-packed situations is just a part of who he is, both on and off the ice.
"There’s no more tense situation than your whole country watching that final game and that big play he made to keep the puck in at the end — you can’t teach that kind of stuff at practice — he’s really thrived since that tournament," Boughner explained. "He’s a guy that you know thrives on pressure and you can see the look in his eye. That’s the guy you want on the ice in those situations.
"[He’s a] good kid in the room. He’s learning to be more of a leader. He’s talkative. He’s pretty loose before the game; he’s not one of these kids that sits and gets too nervous. He just stays loose and that’s when he’s at his best. I could see him wearing a letter for this team in the near future."
Young added that Ellis is growing into a leadership role in the Spitfires’ dressing room.
"He’s definitely not as quiet as you would think. He steps up and he acts like a veteran in there. I really think he’s going to be a good leader down the road," he said. "I think he’s adapted well. Last year he was that star player for us; this year he’s continued that role I think that being the case he can really take that leadership role that other young kids couldn’t."
Ellis ended the regular season as Central Scouting’s 16th-ranked prospect. He topped out as the 13th-ranked player in ISS’ latest rankings. The young blueliner is pleased, but not satisfied with his ranking.
"I think any time you get a first-round ranking it’s pretty awesome," he said. "Obviously I’d like to be a little higher than that. I think having a good playoff run can bring me up the rankings. I think it really doesn’t matter where I am — it’s just important about how our team does and stuff like that. I think for the most part I was pleased and happy to be seeded there."
Offensively, Ellis’ game is extremely polished. The knock on him last year was his defensive play — a facet of his game that his coach has noticed an incredible improvement.
"[His defense] has improved over the last two years. His gap’s getting better; he’s so smart that he anticipates the play, and he breaks up a lot of plays with his stick," Boughner said. "When he gets the puck in his own end, because he can make that good first, quick pass, he can get himself out of a lot of trouble. He’s steadily improved. His assignment is to play against the top two lines, so we need him there big-time for his defense as well."
Although it lists the Buffalo Sabres as Ellis’ favorite NHL club, he said his favorite squad as a youth was a little closer to home.
"It was the Leafs for a while, growing up so close to Toronto, but they’ve been kind of stuttering for the last few years, so I’ve been looking to other Canadian teams the last few years — Edmonton, and teams like that — but I think I’m going to be a Leafs’ fan at heart," Ellis said.
And with the draft approaching, Ellis is just appreciating the culmination of a long ride.
"No plans really [for Montreal], I’m just going to try and enjoy the experience," he said. "It’s going to be a lot of fun there.
"Whether I’m going high, low, wherever, it’s just something to be proud of getting drafted into the NHL."