Over the summer, Dan Ellis wondered if he’d be able to play at the highest level of hockey again.
Since October, his efforts in net for the Charlotte Checkers answered that question with a resounding, “yes.” After graduating from an extended AHL tryout contract to a one-way NHL contract Sunday, Ellis is poised to back up goaltender Cam Ward in the upcoming compressed season.
A veteran of six NHL seasons and 165 games, Ellis is happy just to have that opportunity again. Once a starting goaltender with Nashville, the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native served as the backup to Jonas Hiller in Anaheim during the last two seasons.
However, a pair of midseason injuries, including a groin tear, set Ellis back in a contract year. He played just 10 games in the 2011-12 season, and the 32-year-old spent the following summer rehabbing under a cloud of uncertainty.
“When you have an injury like that and you lose an attachment of a muscle, your body starts to move a little differently,” he said. “You have to find a new way to maneuver yourself to play the same way you did before. There’s a bit of a learning curve and feeling-out process.”
As the summer months progressed, his hope of landing a new contract dwindled.
“We went through free agency, and I had no offers,” he said. “There was some concern there.”
Ellis said he fielded offers from Europe and Russia, some more lucrative than others, but with a wife and two children under the age of five, taking his career abroad wasn’t a decision worth considering. He wanted to remain stateside, and Charlotte extended him that opportunity, signing him to a professional tryout contract on Sept. 24.
“For me, the top priority was just playing and being able to see if I was able to play again. There were honestly concerns during the summer when I was skating that maybe I couldn’t play at that level ever again,” he said. “It was a test to see how long my body could withstand the constant punishment and to see if I had recovered fully. I was able to pass those tests and build on that.”
In fact, he passed the tests early. In his first four AHL games since playing for the Iowa Stars in 2007, Ellis recorded three wins, a 1.07 goals-against average and a .967 save percentage, earning CCM/AHL Player of the Week honors in late October.
Those numbers weren’t posted against filtered AHL lineups, either. As in 2004-05, when Ellis tended the net for the Hamilton Bulldogs, he was doing so against better-than-average teams due to the NHL work stoppages.
“When you have that level of talent playing in that league, it’s really noticeable,” he said. “I think it was a great benefit to all the guys and myself, especially, to have that level of play to get games and transition back into the NHL.”
Splitting the workload with Justin Peters, as is often the case in the AHL due to the intensive travel and scheduling, Ellis notched an 8-7-2 record, a 2.46 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage in 18 games for Charlotte. Peters’ numbers are comparable: a 14-6-1 record, a 2.35 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage in 23 games.
“I think we developed a good relationship right off the bat,” Ellis said of Peters. “In the AHL, it’s important to have two goalies who can play. Petey was fantastic. He helped me a lot, just learning the surroundings and the guys. He was a fantastic goalie partner, and I think he’s got a bright future ahead of him.”
When it came time to decide who would serve as Ward’s backup in a compressed schedule with very little room for error, the organization settled on Ellis because of his NHL experience.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen, but Cam has that history of being a workhorse. As a goalie partner, you want to do whatever you can to allow him to continue to be that workhorse. If he needs a break, then I have to be there to provide it,” Ellis said. “We’ll feel it out as it goes, and I just have to be ready at any time.”
Muller said Sunday that, while he’s unsure of how often he intends to rest Ward, the backup goaltending position might be more important this year than it’s ever been.
No pressure, right?
“No,” Ellis said with a smile. “Never.”
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