Sunday, June 7, 2009

On the Fence With Ryan Ellis

I’ll admit it; I’m not the biggest believer in Ryan Ellis.

To put this in perspective though… on The Pipeline Show we talk about everything in Major Junior, NCAA and minor pro but being based in Edmonton, we don’t get to watch a lot of OHL hockey. My own personal viewings of Ryan Ellis are limited to the 2009 World Junior Championship in Ottawa and the recent Memorial Cup in Rimouski – and both on TV, which I’ve never believed gives a complete picture of a player if you are really trying to “scout” him.

Thankfully in our line of work we speak with a lot of people who do get to watch the players first hand, whether it be media colleagues that are on hand, other players or the network of people employed in the hockey world including scouts, coaches and GMs from various levels. Tapping into that network is how I round out my personal opinion or expectations of a player – sometimes that works out well and sometimes it doesn’t.

My opinion right now on Ryan Ellis is that he’s a fantastic junior hockey player, maybe one of the best in the history of junior hockey, but that he’s going to have a hell of a time making a career in the NHL.

His offensive numbers this year with the Windsor Spitfires were unreal – 89 points in 57 games and 31 more in the 20 playoff games that followed. Considering how much hockey he played this year including the extra tournaments, I think he deserves a ton of credit for not running out of gas like a lot of players might.

Ellis has a wicked, booming shot that has become his trademark. As he told us on the show back in November, most (if not all) of his 15 goals in 2007-08 came from the top of the circles courtesy the mighty slapper he has at his disposal.

Despite a lack of stature Ellis isn’t shy of the open ice hit, just ask 6’5 Rimouski forward Keven Veilleux. The 5’10 blueliner stepped into Velleux during the Memorial Cup and the Penguins prospect lost his wind, a few shifts and maybe a couple of teeth before he managed to get back into the game.

According to everyone I’ve spoken with, his strongest asset sits between his ears – there is no question that Ellis thinks the game as well as anyone his age. He’s a tactical assassin that knows when to pinch in on the power play, where to find the open man with a stretch pass or how to angle off a forward to break up an attack. Ellis can quarterback a power play as effectively as anyone in junior hockey, and maybe arguably as well as some right now in the NHL.

Did I mention that I’m not a big believer?

Well despite all the sunshine and rainbows I described, I have no problem envisioning Ryan Ellis ending up like any number of previous Major Junior stars who couldn’t translate that success to the highest level of the sport. For all his strengths there are just as many things that create doubt and every person I talk to, those who like him and those who don’t, all agree that there is a serious level of uncertainty with him.

The questions obviously begin with his size. Generously listed at 5’10 and just less than 180 lbs, Ellis is going to struggle defensively at the NHL level. He’s already been described to me by one scout as a player “who appears reluctant to turn and chase after a puck in his own end” because of the subsequent contact that will result. That’s not to say that he’s afraid of the hit but rather that he knows it’s a puck battle that he’s not likely to win.

That leads to the question of whether he’ll be able to handle the power forwards that dominate the NHL these days – players like Ryan Getzlaf, Joe Thornton, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Malkin. One scout I talked to expressed that very concern when he said “There is a definite risk involved taking a guy that small when you picture how he’s going to try and defend against someone like Iginla.”

The next critique I hear lodged against Ellis is his skating. He’s not bad but he’s just average or as our friend Peter Loubardias (Rogers Sportsnet) put it: “There are some question marks in terms of him not being the most fluid skater.”

To me, the combination of undersized and average speed is an absolute killer. To play defence at the NHL level you can be small but then you’d better be fast and the fact that Ellis is neither of those things is a big red flag to me. One scout suggested he wouldn’t be able to play the same puck rushing style that he does in junior because he couldn’t get back to his own end fast enough if something went wrong. So if he’s not going to be the same style of pro as he is a junior… what will he be?

The other knock we all heard so much about, mostly before the WJC in Ottawa, is that his defensive play is suspect. I actually didn’t have any problems with the way he looked at the WJC and I thought he was fine at the Memorial Cup too but it’s still a concern to people who have seen him way more than I have. “He seems to be more of a one-dimensional player” one bird-dog suggested to me.

So when I list the pros and the cons I come up with really big issues on both sides of the ledger:

PROS: Ridiculously good hockey sense… howitzer shot from the point… able to log a ton of ice time… great on the power play… terrific point production… surprise open ice hitter

CONS: Diminutive size… average skating ability… potentially limited to offensive role as a pro… strength against pros questioned…

It leaves me on the fence.

When we had Ellis on the show back in November, I asked him directly if he looked at a guy like Kris Russell as someone to pattern his game after in order to reach the NHL. Little did I know that I had picked the very person Ellis himself had singled out.

“Kris Russell is one of my favorite players in the NHL right now and I watched him with the Medicine Hat Tigers in the Memorial Cup and loved how he played; his style and I thought he was really close to what I am like so he became my favorite player,” said Ellis. “Ever since then I just focused on becoming like him and he’s come a long way playing with Columbus. I think with myself, being underestimated because of my size is a lot like him so I think we have the same things in common and the same goals as well.”

So using Russell as a comparison, since that is the guy Ellis himself would use, I have to ask this question: Why is Ryan Ellis getting 1st round consideration? Kris Russell was drafted in the 3rd round back in 2005, the year of the lockout, so no one really knew how the league would change once it got back to playing. Russell’s height and weight are basically the same as Ellis but in 2005 he was deemed a gamble pick for the NHL.

In his draft year Russell scored 26 goals, 4 more than Ellis, and ended with 61 points. Ellis was part of a Memorial Cup Champion team with Taylor Hall, Greg Nemisz, Andrei Loktionov and Dale Mitchell that scored 311 goals in the regular season alone. By Comparison, Russell’s Medicine Hat team in 2005 lost out in the second round of the WHL playoffs and was led by Clarke MacArthur and Stefan Meyer, obviously not the same level of teammates that Ellis benefited from this past year. The 2004-05 Tigers scored 234 times that year.

Some people point to the plus-57 ratings that Ellis had as evidence that he’s not simply a power play specialist. One scout wasn’t buying it though.

“Yeah sure but he played a ton there and obviously they had a great team,” said the scout, “But when you get those forward who can put the puck in the net, all he has to do is make a pass to Taylor Hall and you get an assist and you’re going to get a plus.”

The similarities between the players is uncanny; same size, same puck-rushing or puck-moving style of play, both control the power play for their team and both played similar roles for Canada at the WJC (although Russell was a bit older when he first made the team).

Anyone who knows me knows that I was and still am a big supporter of Kris Russell. I thought he was a great selection by Columbus in the 3rd round and felt he would have been worthy of a 2nd round pick that year. So my question becomes… would Kris Russell be a mid-1st round pick if he were eligible this year or, is Ryan Ellis overrated? Other than the fact that Ellis is surrounded by better players than Russell was in 2005, what is so much better about the Spitfire blueliner that he’s getting hyped as being worth a mid-1st rounder?

In January we asked Medicine Hat coach Willie Desjardins to compare the two players after having just returned from running the defence for Canada at the WJC in Ottawa.

“[Ellis] really controls the power play, he’s so good up there, and at 17 he does some pretty exceptional things and Russell did the same at 16 and 17,” said Desjardins, “You have to look at their size and see a similarity too.”

Which still doesn’t tell me why Ellis ranks so much higher so I asked a couple of different scouts the same thing.

“That’s a good question... I don’t know.” Said one.

And, Russell skated better than him.” Pointed out the other evaluator.

Forget Russell for a second and let me really lower the bar for another comparison. What makes Ellis a better pro prospect than say Marc-Andre Bergeron? Both have a big point shot, both like to make open ice hits, both can run a power play. Ellis clearly has as edge because of his elite hockey sense but there is no doubt that Bergeron can skate in the NHL. Bergeron was never drafted.

The fact that Ellis thinks the game so well seems to generally be what is the most attractive thing for scouts; arguably good enough that they are willing to overlook his size and average speed. There are a lot of people making comparisons to Brian Rafalski, which makes sense because they are similar size and style of player. Rafalski was never drafted.

Greg Hawgood was a super offensive blueliner out of the WHL who was drafted very late in the 1986 draft by Boston. It was a different era of course but Hawgood had three seasons of over 100 points while with the Kamloops Blazers. He had a 20-year pro career but was only a full time NHLer in three of them.

I just don’t get it but there has to be some explanation that is eluding me. Maybe if I was one of the stat-savvy bloggers I could make the comparisons from that perspective and that would shed some light on it. But I’m not so this is an open invitation for those of you that are math wizards to tell me what the difference is between Ellis and the guys I’ve listed above. I assume there is a difference; I just don’t see it yet so your calculator skills would be appreciated.

So hopefully you can see why I’m doubting that Ellis can live up to the expectations that a 1st round selection would heap on him. And then, just when my mind is made up, that’s when a guy like Peter Loubardias drops the following information on me and sets me right back up on the fence again.

Loubardias was on our show two weeks ago and we asked him directly if he was a believer in Ryan Ellis:

“I put a lot of stock in intangibles,” he began, “I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that Ryan Ellis has reeled off the most impressive 13-month run that any young hockey player has ever enjoyed; he’s won five championships... in 13 months! World U18 gold, Ivan Hlinka Memorial gold, he won at the World Juniors, he won the OHL title and he won the Memorial Cup… since last April. I don’t think that it was a complete coincidence that he was involved and was a pretty important piece at times during all of the above.”

“At the World Juniors in Ottawa, I get it – he was a power play specialist – but his play on the boards to hold the puck in, twice, in the semi-final… Jordan Eberle is never in front of the net by himself with the puck if Ryan Ellis doesn’t make that play.” Loubardias pointed out.

“If Ryan Ellis doesn’t step up his game at the Memorial Cup and score the game winner in the third against Kelowna, his team ends up 0-3 and goes home,” he added, “He’s a tough guy to judge because you want to go against him in one way but on the other hand he is so smart and so competitive and is such a winner that I wouldn’t have a tough time taking him between 10 and 15, I really wouldn’t.”

As much as I respect Loubardias and his opinion because quite frankly, he’s forgotten more about junior hockey than I’ll ever know… I’m still not 100% convinced. The last 13 months have been an amazing success story for Ellis but the one thing those memorable wins all have in common is that they are achievements in junior hockey. No question that it’s rare for one player to be a part of all of those teams in one season but I don’t think it’s any guarantee of NHL success and for me, it doesn’t erase the doubts I have.

Do I think Ryan Ellis should be drafted? Of course I do. He could very well go on and have a lengthy pro career including a degree of success at the NHL level. However, I don’t see why he should be a Top-10 candidate and I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think we might see him slip outside the Top-20 at the NHL draft on June 26th.


Vik said...

I think it's because of guys like Kris Russell that Ellis is a highly rated prospect. If guys like Russell, Mike Green, Tobias Enstrom, and such weren't having success in the NHL, I don't think people would be thinking so highly of Ellis.

But, I'll be with you on fence about him.

Guy Flaming said...

Russel can skate. If I recall correctly, Green's skating isn't an issue. I haven't seen enough of Enstrom to know if that's a concern for him.

For me, NHL D-men need to be two of three things: Big, Fast, Smart.

Ellis is only the latter.

other things like character, compete level, shot, etc factor in as well obviously but the above 3 are the biggies. For me.

glad I'm not the only undecided one out there, but I'll admit to leaning more to the 'thumbs down' side.

Traktor said...

Top notch stuff, Guy.

I'm with you on this one.

Anonymous said...

maybe pendergast will draft ellis and then you will get back down on your knees and worship him and ellis.

Guy Flaming said...

Thanks for the contribution Anonymous. Class act.

Flames Draft Watcher said...

Gotta agree with you Flaming. This talk of him going top 10 has me bewildered. I love his offensive ability but the size and skating are huge question marks. As a Flames fan I'm not sure I'd even be happy if we took him at #20.

It will be interesting to see who steps up in late June and takes a chance on him.

dstaples said...

Guy, that is about the best post I've ever read about a junior prospect. Simply outstanding work.

SumOil said...

For me, Ellis bashing is an enigma. All I read about him these days is how he should not be a highly touted prospect. May be you all are right. But these are some points I will like to point out.

1> You are right about your comments about NHL D-men needing 2 out of three things. However, his skating is not poor. Its average. Skating is something that can be worked upon. I think prime example is David Booth of the panthers. This season every one raved about how he worked on his skating and he really was flying around the ice. Ellis is a very smart and work ethic guy. When a team drafts him and give him a directive to improve his skating, I don't see any reason why he should not be dedicated to it.

2> You mentioned about how ellis is on a stacked team and all he has to do is pass it to Taylor Hall, Greg Nemisz, Andrei Loktionov and Dale Mitchell and they will score.Now, all of them are forwards. Who was the guy who got the puck to them to put them in a position to score? I will like to take Sens as an example. Their top forwards are amongst the best in the NHL, but they struggled. Why? They needed someone to get the puck up the ice and pass it.
In the OHL playoffs, when they were playing against London, there was this particular game when winsor was down one goal. With about 90 seconds left, Ellis got the puck, got in and made a Thornton-esque pass and all the guy had was an empty net to shoot at. We already know of his heroics as an UNDERAGER in the WJC.

3>Like you Russel is one of my favorite players. This year I have followed CBJ a lot. I will have to agree that Russel is a way faster skater than Ellis. However, Ellis is more defensively aware, a better passer and has a way better shot than Russel. Again, Ellis is smarter and has a greater defensive awareness than MAB.
I agree with Rafalski comparison. Due to his age, I think Rafalski would have been eligible for 1992 nhl draft.
Now in hindsight, dont you think Rafalski too would have been a 1st round draftee and most probably a 10-20 pick?

4> You said and I will quote:
"That leads to the question of whether he’ll be able to handle the power forwards that dominate the NHL these days – players like Ryan Getzlaf, Joe Thornton, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Malkin."
The points I have are:
->Are there many defencemen who can really handle these players? There may be a group of 15-20 NHL defensemen who can truly shut these players down.
->No one is projecting Ellis to be 1st pairing or an oft used shutdown defenseman. However, he can be solid at second pairing and an exceptional powerplay D-man.
->Many of the current(and potential) stars such as Kane, Gagner, Statsny, Roy are not very big. Can Ellis really not handle that?

5> I think last years' draft spoilt many of us. We are hoping that this year be the same as the last one. However, starting from Tavares himself, everyone is perplexed about how good this draft's players will be. There is an exceptional amount of boom/bust players in this year's draft. One draft rating is so different from another that one cannot safely predict anything.
The curious case of Ryan Ellis is no different.

With your post you certainly have me thinking. I hope I can do the same.

Guy Flaming said...

@ SumOil

1) I didn't say his skating was "poor"... I said it was average. Sure he can work on that. Right now though, it's a concern.

2)It was the scout who talked about the loaded team that he plays with. I would like to see a breakdown of how many of his assists were 1st and how many were 2nd.

3) A guy like Rafalski, having the success he has had, is the EXCEPTION and not the rule.

I'm not saying Ellis shouldn't be drafted. I'm making the argument that using a mid-1st round pick on him might not be worth the gamble. I'd have no problem using a late 1st or 2nd rounder though.

SumOil said...

@ Guy Flaming

I totally see where you were getting to with the article. I was trying to say that Ellis is worth a mid 1st.

Agreed Rafalski was an exception, but ellis projects to be like him. In hindsight, I think a mid 1st would have been spent on Rafalski.

Anonymous said...

Ohio Jones here (sorry, no Google/Blogger account):

Love the coverage, guys.

I am on board with having a tough time fitting Ellis into my top 20 this season. I'm wondering how international scouts compare him to someone like pint-sized Finnish defenceman Sami Vatanen, who despite his stature was impressive in fitness tests at the Combine, and who seems to have a good helping of two-way smarts as well. Granted, Ellis has a much shinier pedigree in terms of championships, but that seems to be more a measure of this year's Finnish draft class than a qualitative comparison between the players. If I was really open to taking an undersized defenceman, I'd rather use a first-round pick on a prospect with less bust potential, and take someone like Vatanen in the middle rounds as my gamble pick.

johnz96 said...

danny syret w would be another perfect example of a smaller defenseman having a similarly great year with with the london knights and team canada. hopefully the nhl scouts are also on the fence about him and he slips to 29 for detroit. i dont think they would pass him up. by the way rafalski is a great skater it his best asset for those of you who have said that ellis projects to be like him

Anonymous said...

You can make yourself a list of characteristics that you require for a player to be a successful NHLer until you're blue in the face, but some players simply break the mold.

If you're acute enough to use your eyes instead of abstracts, you'll see that Ellis runs a PP better than any junior has in a long, long time, and probably already better than a good portion of big-league QBs.

Regardless of the rest of his game, that alone should be enough for someone to use a top 10 pick on.

So make your list, then watch him succeed.

johnz96 said...

there were some stats comparing ellis to past defensemen with percentage of team's points that was part of the "on the fence with ryan ellis" post i can't seem to find that can anyone help me i thought it looked really interesting but was in a rush