By Andrew Hirsh, Managing Editor
RALEIGH, N.C.—The Carolina Hurricanes entered training camp with three worthy candidates for the role of backup goaltender, giving the organization a plethora of depth between the pipes—depth that was very much absent in the fall. But before any on-ice activities got underway this week, the Canes’ brass had already made their decision on the matter.
Carolina chose to go with veteran Dan Ellis, 32, who’s surprised a lot of people this year with an impressive showing in the AHL with the Charlotte Checkers. Following his recent success, the Canes have signed Ellis to a one-year NHL contract that will pay him a prorated salary of $650,000 in the truncated 2013 campaign.
The spot opened up for Ellis after Carolina dealt Brian Boucher on Sunday, who was shipped to Philadelphia along with prospect Mark Alt in exchange for 23-year-old Luke Pither.
Justin Peters, the third potential backup the Canes had to choose from, will remain in Charlotte and likely take over the starting job for the Checkers, which he’d been sharing with Ellis before the lockout came to a close.
After signing a minor league tryout contract prior to the start of the 2012-13 season, Ellis has helped lead Charlotte to the top spot in the South Division, and in the process caught the attention of Canes GM Jim Rutherford.
“Dan is an experienced netminder who has had good years in the NHL, and played well for Charlotte this season,” Rutherford said. “We feel it is important to have a veteran goalie to partner with Cam (Ward) during the compressed season.”
While Ellis’ record wasn’t great with the Checkers (8-7-2), his individual numbers—including a 2.46 goals against average and .922 save percentage—are far more indicative of how well he’s been performing of late.
He’ll return to the NHL after experiencing an injury-plagued 2011-12, which cost him his job with the Ducks and saw him enter unrestricted free agency with no suitors vying for his services.
“It was important for me to just overcome the injury. When you miss a lot of time you have to get your body back in shape, back in balance,” Ellis said. “It’s been a good start to the year. I’m thankful for the Checkers to give me an opportunity to play and to get back into shape and prove myself again.”
Despite a lack of attention from NHL teams, Ellis claimed to be in great shape last summer after going under the knife. Even though it’s hard not to be apprehensive about a goalie with recent health issues—especially issues with a muscle easy to re-aggravate, like the groin—he’s done more than enough to prove he’s physically ready to take over for Boucher.
“Right now I feel I am stronger than I was before the surgery,” he said in July. “One good thing about it is when you injure a groin it forces you to work on those groins, work on your core, and so I feel much stronger now than I did before the injury because before an injury like this you’re working on your quads, you’re not as focused on strengthening those small muscles that not only stabilize you but bring your legs inwards. A lot of times you’re working on pushing and power muscles like your quads, your hamstrings, and glutes.
“Having an injury like this forces you to work on every area and strengthen your entire body so when you work on your adductors a lot more it gives you better squeezes. It gives you better range of motion, better control and so, honestly, this injury has almost been a blessing in the fact that I’ve actually been able to get stronger than I was before and being in a better position where your injury prevention is a million times better than it ever was.”
With the chance to start in front of the Canes brass in last Sunday’s AHL contest at PNC Arena, Ellis didn’t disappoint—stopping 28 of 29 shots en route to a 3-1 victory over the Norfolk Admirals.
“(Ellis has) seen a lot in his career; he’s been a No. 1, he’s been a backup. You see (his experience) in games when he gives up a bad goal early that doesn’t rattle him,” Charlotte head coach Jeff Daniels said after the Checkers’ win in Raleigh. “He’s a great veteran presence in our locker room.”
While Ellis has been highly valuable to the Checkers, he’s certainly earned the opportunity to play at the next level. Considering the significance each game will hold in the upcoming 48-game season, it makes sense to bring him up over the younger and more inexperienced Peters.
Given this condensed schedule, there will be less days off in-between games than normal—and thus a greater necessity for quality backups. Ward will likely be the stalwart, reliable goalie he’s been since 2006, but a capable No. 2 will be critical for Carolina to make a return to the playoffs this spring.
If Ellis can translate his recent success to the NHL, he’ll prove to be the goalie the Canes need.