NASHVILLE—Ryan Ellis is standing outside the home locker room at Bridgestone Arena, near an emptied stick rack and the tunnel that leads toward the benches. Between his crisp silver suit and cascading ginger beard, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound defenseman looks as though he recently emerged from six months of hermitage in the Smoky Mountains and dressed up for a welcome-back-to-society press conference. Or like he had been awarded the honor of delivering the keynote address at one of downtown Nashville’s many conventions. Specifically, an international expo for leprechaun look-a-likes.
It’s early Thursday afternoon, not long after the Predators began and ended practice within 20 minutes, typically brisk under brusque coach Peter Laviolette. Most of Ellis’s teammates have already left for the airport, where the team plane awaits for another series-opening road trip, the third straight for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Never in its 18-year history has Nashville advanced this far in the playoffs, a boon to both the franchise and its hockey-tonkin’ fans. And with the Predators standing just four wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final, a quest that begins Friday in Anaheim, few—if any, really—players have made bigger impacts than the unassuming 26-year-old idling in the hallway.
Ellis may be charmed, though he’s by no means lucky. First to arrive at the rink every morning and first to hit the ice before every workout, he has ridden both heart and hard work toward becoming the hidden star on Nashville’s studded defensive corps, in clover beside more recognizable names like P.K. Subban and Roman Josi. Tied for the team lead with four goals and nine points this postseason, Ellis isn’t some once-in-a-blue-moon scorer, either; he had 101 points in 58 games during his final season with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires in ‘10-11, while also setting Team Canada’s career scoring record for defensemen at the under-20 World Junior Championships. “One of the best junior hockey careers ever,” Predators GM David Poile says.
As Ellis chats, the door to the dressing room swings shut. Painted onto the front is a cartoon blue bulldog whose spiked collar says STANLEY, biting into a bone with the words SPEED and ATTITUDE on either side. (In a tribute to injured forward Kevin Fiala, who fractured his femur during Game 1 of the second round against St. Louis, someone also slapped a Band-Aid onto the muscular pup’s left foreleg, inscribed with Fiala’s number, 56.) Never one for subtlety, Laviolette recently commissioned the image to instill a dog-on-a-bone mindset into his charges. And lest anyone misinterpret the message, according to the team website, they even play AC/DC’s “Givin’ The Dog A Bone” after victories.
This fits Ellis to a tee. Consider, for instance, his four postseason goals. All of them have snapped ties, including two in the third period against the Blues during the Western Conference semifinals. In Game 3, he pounced on a loose puck as a first-period power play expired, golfing a hydroplaning one-timer that somehow slithered through traffic thicker than his waterfall of facial whiskers. Two nights later, as Nashville took a 3-1 series lead, he capitalized on a chaotic netfront scramble during the third period, waltzing into the slot and slamming the icebreaker past goalie Jake Allen. He hounds opponents plenty on the other end, too; Ellis averages 2:24 of shorthanded time on ice per game, second on the Predators only to his partner, Josi.
And yet, despite an instantly recognizable appearance—“You don’t see too many people with a beard like this,” he admits—Ellis hasn’t felt his profile rise much in the Music City: “It’s kind of been the same for me. Maybe the odd interview more here and there. But I’m a pretty simple guy. I just like to be behind the scenes, and that’s kind of how it is down here. That’s nice.”
Some of this stems from the way Ellis plays. He’s an expert at feeding smooth one-timers on the man advantage—deferring, in other words. Goalie Pekka Rinne, speaking to longtime Predators beat writer John Glennon, likened Ellis’s slap shot to the “silencer” on a gun. Plus, while Ellis ranked third among all NHL defensemen with 16 goals during the regular season, he still gets overshadowed by the likes of one of the world’s best two-way defensemen (Josi) and the uber-talented blue-liner who heads to the plane headed to the plane rocking some salmon-colored pants (Subban).
“It’s a non-traditional market,” Ellis says. “I’m sure in Toronto you get stopped every day for a picture. The fans here are great. They respect your privacy. Very polite people. It’s an incredible place to play, not only for the atmosphere in the arena and the support you get, but the quality of the people in the city.
“Got some neighbors that wish me luck and stuff like that, maybe the odd time at a restaurant here and there. They’re so good about respecting your privacy and letting you eat dinner. If you do get recognized, they may not even say anything.”
Those bold enough to approach should have no shortage of praise. Late in Game 3 of the Predators’ first-round sweep of the Blackhawks, which made them the NHL’s only eighth seed to ever do so, Ellis set up the tying goal by cranking a deep one-timer from just inside the blue line. He added two more helpers in Game 4, first faking a slapper to set up Josi off a face-off win and then blocking a shot before finding Viktor Arvidsson on a stretch pass up the middle of the ice. With points in seven straight spanning the first and second rounds, Ellis also tied a team record.
“A lot of it’s our system,” he says. “We’re instilled to be a five-man attack. It’s not about the forwards doing it offensively, or the D doing it. It’s everyone got to do it to get the job done. I think the biggest thing with all our D, really, is they can skate, they like to move the puck. Who doesn’t like to score, or get involved, right?”
Against the Ducks, Ellis and Josi figure to match against one of the Ryan lines—Getzlaf or Kesler—with Subban and Mattias Ekholm drawing the other assignment. He had just two points in Nashville’s first-round seven-game win over Anaheim last season but still averaged 22:37 per night. “They’re big,” he says of Anaheim, which advanced in Wednesday’s winner-take-all against Edmonton. “They can skate. They’ve got some guys who can score. All their lines can play. We saw that last year in the playoffs, they like to play a physical brand of hockey. On top of that, they have the skill guys who can make the playoffs. It was more or less a war the last time we played them, and I expect nothing else.”
Drafted at No. 11 in ‘09, a lottery that included fellow defensemen Victor Hedman and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Ellis hasn’t been around long enough to fully grasp what Sunday’s Game 6 win over St. Louis meant to the Predators. At least not like Poile, the general manager since the first day. Or 34-year-old goalie Pekka Rinne, the longest-tenured player with 508 regular-season and 58 playoff games, all in Nashville. Still, he understands. He sees the golden jerseys strewn around town and the Predators license-plate frames on the road. He hears the neighbors wishing him luck. He feels the atmosphere at Bridgestone Arena, which even though Ellis has never seen a college football game live, he imagines it would be something similar.
“You’ve got to be excited for people like that who have been doing it for so long,” he says. “To finally get over that hurdle. But for the rest of us, we’re halfway there. We still have a lot of work to do. It would be a shame to let it all go now, just being happy with what we’ve got.”
Of course, the Predators are sure pleased they have Ellis, their pot of gold on the back end.