While he toiled for his bantam AAA team in Okotoks, Alberta, Keaton Ellerby wasn’t sure if he would ever get a chance to show his skills in the Western Hockey League. As it turned out he was very close. In fact, only about six inches away.
“Keaton was never drafted,” explained Kamloops Blazers’ assistant coach Shane Zulyniak. “He was a listed player after the bantam draft. He was only about 5’7, and then during the summer he started to grow a bit, so we listed him and put him on our 50-man roster.
“He put on about six inches in about six months. It turned out to be a bit of good fortune there for the Blazers.”
The growth spurt occurred before the hockey powers-that-be implemented the new standard of rules enforcement. When Ellerby was playing bantam hockey, the opportunities for smaller defensemen seemed minimal at best, unless a player was an absolutely elite prospect. Although Ellerby was regarded a skilled player, there were no takers at the 2003 WHL Bantam Draft.
“When I was younger, I was a pretty small guy and there weren’t too many teams looking at me,” Ellerby admitted in an interview with Hockey’s Future. “I had a huge growth spurt from my bantam to my midget year, from when I was 14 to 15.”
It can be tough enough for a young player to establish himself amongst his peers across the deep talent pool in western Canada. Toss in the physical challenges that come along with a rapid growth spurt, and the process can become even more complicated. Expenses associated with quickly outgrowing equipment, virtually relearning motor skills, and simply maintaining confidence through the struggles. Yet Ellerby says he tried to take everything in stride.
“It happened pretty fast, I think I grew something like six inches and that definitely helped a lot,” Ellerby remembered when asked how the attention increased as he passed the 6’0 mark. “Since then, I’ve really had to keep working on my skating and just try to keep as mobile as possible being a bigger guy now. It’s been a good thing and it’s worked out good so far.”
Now in his third full season with the Blazers, the 6’4, 190-pounder has made professional scouts take notice. Currently, the International Scouting Service has Ellerby ranked 13th among skaters. Among WHL players in the ISS rankings, he’s behind only Karl Alzner (2nd) of the Calgary Hitmen, Colton Gillies (11th) of the Saskatoon Blades and John Negrin (12th) of the Kootenay Ice.
Through 40 games this season, Ellerby has scored two goals and added 10 assists, including a helper on the overtime winner in the Blazers’ 4-3 victory over the Kelowna Rockets on Jan. 9. He’s earned a plus-3 ranking and has collected 77 penalty minutes. Overall though, Ellerby has worked hard to overcome inconsistent play.
“He’s been a little bit up and down this season,” Zulyniak confirmed. “We had a pretty good chat with him here over the Christmas break and he’s played three or four pretty solid games for us since then. I think he knows what he needs to do now.
“I think sometimes Keaton puts a lot of pressure on himself and he tries to do a little too much. We expect big things from him during the second half and we feel like he’s on board and prepared to do what it takes to contribute to the team being successful. I think your going to see some good things out of him.”
As a 17-year-old, Ellerby established himself as an efficient and reliable pugilist. It’s that physical edge Zulyniak says has been missing this season.
“His strengths are his ability to make good first passes, he can get back quickly for the puck when he has to, and he seldom lets guys beat him one-on-one. He can play mean and tough, and maybe throw the mitts a little bit.
“But he hasn’t had that aggressive edge that we’ve seen over the past couple years, but I think that’s coming around a bit here now.”
For the most part this season, Ellerby has played alongside Ryan Bender (2007 eligible) on the Blazers’ blue line. It’s a pairing the coaching staff likes in all situations.
“They’ve been playing together for about the last 25 games or so,” Zulyniak said. “Ryan is a pretty tough, stay-at-home guy, so Keaton has the green light to jump in on the rush when things are safe and we can take a few chances. They also play the second unit power play.
“They complement each other pretty well because they’re two pretty tough and rugged guys. They have been able to look after the top couple lines on the other teams, so we like to get them out there banging people around.”
As a highly-ranked prospect for the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Ellerby has been in the spotlight for much of the season, which has seen the Blazers produce a massive turnaround from last season. At 29-10-1-1 through 41 games, Kamloops is pushing the B.C. Division leading Vancouver Giants. The Blazers, who missed the playoffs last year, have been consistently among the CHL’s weekly Top 10 rankings since early November.
“I think it’s been very good for our team this year,” Ellerby said. “We’ve been winning games and that’s a big change from the past couple years. It’s been pretty successful so far, but we have to continue that in the second half.”
Ellerby played in the ADT Canada/Russia Challenge in November, an experience he feels he took full advantage of by connecting with some of the top defensemen in major junior hockey.
“It was unreal, a great opportunity,” Ellerby said. “It was a huge honor to be invited. I was able to spend some time with Kris Russell (CLB) and Cody Franson (NAS), who are obviously very good defensemen in this league.
“I’ve known them for awhile, but have never really played with them, so it was a great opportunity to see how they prepare and get ready for important games.”
There is another important game around the corner for Ellerby as he will travel to Quebec City to play in the annual Top Prospects Game.
“It’s another great opportunity to show what I can do, to showcase my skills,” Ellerby said. “I know there’ll be a lot of NHL guys there, so I have to keep things simple there, you know, move the puck and play physical and do the things that I do well.”
Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.