The only thing more improbable than the Nashville Predators qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs this season has been the career transformation for goaltender Dan Ellis.
Signed as a one-year free agent to be the top goaltender for the Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League, Ellis emerged in training camp in September as one of the top two goaltenders, relegating Pekka Rinne to another tour with the Admirals.
Like the Predators, Ellis often had his share of ups and downs, but in the final three-and-half weeks of the regular season and the playoffs, he erased any doubts that he can be a No.1 goaltender.
“Things moved along really quickly this season, a lot quicker than I would have anticipated,” Ellis said. “I was happy with the way the regular season went.
“I didn’t like that I was pulled as much as I was. That is something I want to bear down and eliminate because it doesn’t help the team. From a statistical standpoint I can look back on it and be happy with your first year. I couldn’t expect too much, and it went much better than I anticipated.”
As the players packed up and held exit interviews Monday, one the questions for Ellis was whether or not it would be the last time he had a name plate in the Predators’ dressing room at the Sommet Center.
“You want to make a name for yourself,” Ellis said. “You want to get known in the league so people recognize you.
“I have no idea what is going to happen for next year. That is not really in my control. We will see what happens as the summer goes on.”
Ellis enjoyed his time with the Predators. But he admits he also liked playing for the Dallas Stars organization. He played in only one NHL game for the Stars during the 2006-2007 season.
“I really have enjoyed being in Nashville this season,” Ellis said. “I liked our players. I liked the character in the dressing room. I liked the organization.”
When the Predators look at next season they have several things to consider with the goaltending position. Chris Mason, who was expected to be the No. 1 goaltender, did not play in the playoffs and played sparingly the last fourth of the season.
Mason earned $1,250,000 this season, but he signed a two-year extension in July of 2007 that pays him $3 million a year for each of the next two seasons. Ellis earned $500,000 this season according to the NHLPA website.
It will take much more than that for a team to sign Ellis for next season, especially with the memory of his 92 saves in the final two games of the Western Conference quarterfinals against the Detroit Red Wings providing a strong visual. In the six games he stopped 225 shots.
“If there was an MVP in the playoffs for us it was Dan,” said Predators coach Barry Trotz. “There is no question about it. I thought he elevated his game. He gave us a chance to win in every game in the playoffs.”
Ellis did not make a quick ascent to the NHL. He played college hockey for three years and then spent the next four seasons in the AHL along with a 23-game stint in the East Coast Hockey League. He was 27 at the start of the season, too old to be considered for any rookie honors in the NHL.
Ellis did lead the conference in save percentage in the regular season. He also set a team record for shutouts with six. It is uncertain if he can do it again, and possibly do it all even better than he did this season.
“I was blessed with a great year and that is something I want to build on,” Ellis said. “I want to be a consistently good goalie, not just a flash in the pan.
“I don’t feel like I am here for just one season and that I am going to bounce around the league. I feel like it is something to build on. I feel like I made one step in getting to Game 6 in the playoffs. Now I want to get past the first round. You push on and push on and try to help your team out.”
While there may not be any doubt Ellis will be back in the NHL next season, the color of his uniform is still to be determined.