PITTSBURGH — When it comes to sheer size, there is no debate. Ryan Ellis might be the smallest player remaining in the post-season, but he more than makes up for it with a ginger-coloured beard that seven weeks into the playoffs is reaching ZZ Top-like length.
“It’s for sure the best on the team,” said teammate Mattias Ekholm. “It’s thick and it’s long, it’s really good. I don’t know the rules, but he cheated. He’s been growing it for a long time.”
Three years, in fact. Ellis had been trimming it down to a somewhat manageable length during the regular season. But since the playoffs began, he’s let it go completely wild.
It suits him, said Ekholm. It makes him look “gritty” and a bit “meaner.”
When you are all of 5-foot-10, you sometimes need those kinds of distractions. Although, not many people are focused on Ellis’ height like they used to be. Not with the 26-year-old playing on Nashville’s top pairing with Roman Josi and leading the team’s defence with five goals and 12 points prior to Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final.
“It’s not an issue for him because he has terrific hockey sense and he makes great reads defensively,” head coach Peter Laviolette said of Ellis’ lack of size. “He uses his body and his positions well inside the game.His talent is there. He can shoot the puck. He can pass the puck. He’s a competitive guy. But I think the way he plays defence and the way he handles really anybody, based on size, it’s not an issue for him.”
While the successes of Chicago’s Patrick Kane, Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau and Toronto’s Mitch Marner have made it so that small, skilled forwards are actually preferred rather than avoided in the NHL these days, pint-sized defencemen still face their challenges.
Two spots before the Predators selected Ellis with the No. 11 pick in 2009, the Ottawa Senators selected 6-foot-5 Jared Cowen. The No. 2 pick that year was 6-foot-6 Victor Hedman.
It took Ellis a long time to get here. He spent two extra years in junior, scoring 101 points in 58 games in his final season with the Windsor Spitfires. And he toiled for a couple of seasons in the minors, where the focus was always on whether he could handle defending against bigger and stronger opponents.
It really wasn’t until this season, where he led Nashville defencemen with 16 goals and formed chemistry with Josi, that he started to really change minds.
“As soon as you lose a battle, it’s because you’re smaller,” said Ellis, who learned to compensate for his lack of size by relying on his smarts and stick positioning.
“It’s all about speed right now,” he said. “If you can skate, if you can move the puck, it’s more about hockey I.Q. and speed than it is about banging and crashing and all that kind of stuff. There’s always going to be hitting and physical play in the game, but escapability is now a thing.
“You look around the league and every team has a guy my size. If you look around, there’s a lot of guys who are around that height and size who can be effective in the game.”
And more are coming. The top-rated defenceman in this year’s draft is 5-foot-11 Cale Makar, whom NHL Central Scouting has ranked ninth overall amongst North American skaters. That is, as long as a general manager doesn’t get cold feet and takes someone who is bigger.
“I think with the small forwards, we’re all convinced now that these guys can play,” said North American Central Scouting’s Mark Seidel. “But on the backend, it takes some time to transform minds. I can tell you for sure, 10 or 15 years ago, Cale Makar wouldn’t be a first-rounder. There’s no way. So the game is changing that way, but not as quickly as forwards.”
Possession-based stats — which put more emphasis on shots for and against, rather than the absurdity of watching a 5-foot-10 defenceman trying to move a 6-foot-6 forward from the front of the net — have helped speed things up in that regard. As Ellis has shown, speed and skill are more beneficial in not only recovering the puck, but also in moving it up the ice for a scoring chance.
“The game’s so fast out there, so it’s not really about being in the corner and grinding it out for minutes,” said Ellis. “Guys are quick and you’re moving the puck fast. It’s trending more to speed.”
Still, after being paired with 6-foot-4 and 236-pound Shea Weber for the past three years, even Josi admitted he was a bit skeptical when Ellis became his new partner this year.
“I think it’s always good if you have some size as a defenceman,” said Josi. “But Ellis plays a different physical style. He’s strong on the puck and strong with his stick. But he’s extremely smart. He reads the play really well. The game’s fast now. You have to be able to skate.
“I think Ryan is so intelligent on the ice. He’s so good at reading plays and his hockey sense is really good. I think even though he’s a smaller guy, he still plays physical. Obviously, it’s in a different way than Shea did.”
And when it comes to Ellis’ beard, even Shea doesn’t have that kind of size.