Morgan Ellis: From the ECHL to AHL All-Star

Through 49 games this year, Morgan Ellis sits third among AHL defenders in primary points and second goals, while fifth in St. John's IceCaps overall scoring. | Photo: St. John's IceCaps, Colin Peddle.

Through 49 games this year, Morgan Ellis sits third among AHL defenders in primary points and second goals, while fifth in St. John’s IceCaps overall scoring. | Photo: St. John’s IceCaps, Colin Peddle.

Often times when a player takes a significant step in their development a physical tool becomes noticeably better. Improved skating allows a player to stay consistently engaged or provides them with an extra tool to their offensive toolkit; or an improved shot allows them to find the net more often. Other times, a boost of confidence is just what they need. Morgan Ellis falls into the latter category.

Flashback to the 2012 Memorial Cup final between the London Knights and Shawinigan Cataractes. The Memorial Cup hosts, Shawinigan, picked up Morgan Ellis halfway through the season to stabilize their blue line behind top NHL prospect Brandon Gormley. Already in the midst of a breakout season, Ellis would explode for 27 points in 26 games and emerge as the eventual Kevin Lowe Trophy Award as the QMJHL’s Best Shutdown Defender. Despite high expectations, Shawinigan flamed out in the second round versus Chicoutimi.

At the 17:04 mark of the second period, Shawinigan down by one on the powerplay, Ellis made a routine play–The type that had made himself so successful throughout his QMJHL career. It wasn’t a bomb of a slapshot or excellent defensive play off the rush that Ellis has become known for; it was a 10-foot pass. Ellis received a pass in an awkward position and fired it to Anton Zlobin while under pressure in one continuous motion. Two seconds later, the puck found the back of the net. That goal would knot the game until the 2:09 mark of overtime, where Zlobin would score once more to win the Memorial Cup.

It capped off an excellent season for Ellis. No wonder the expectations coming into the 2012-2013 season were so high when Ellis first step into professional hockey.

The 2012-2013 season saw Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi, and Greg Pateryn step into AHL with relative ease, but it wasn’t going to be the same for Ellis. With limited powerplay time, the once-powerplay shooting machine racked up just 66 shots in 71, his lowest total since his QMJHL rookie season. The following season was much of the same apart from a short mid-season resurgence.

Three years after winning the Memorial Cup, Ellis had fallen out favour with the Hamilton Bulldogs. Following his second game in his third AHL season, Ellis was sent down the ECHL. With his contract expiring at season’s end, it looked as though Ellis was done in the Montreal Canadiens organization.

But Ellis wasn’t leaving without a fight. A slow start in the ECHL didn’t get him down, and suddenly two months later, Ellis was the Wheeling Nailers’ number one defender. He was a staple on the first powerplay and penalty kill units, and drew the toughest matchups. With 10 points through the first 19 games, Ellis’ totals were good, but not impressive. Then, he decided to make them impressive: He racked up nine goals and 40 shots in the month of January. They weren’t all just blistering powerplay goals, they were creative plays with quality finishes in all situations.

39 ECHL games, 26 points, and 101 shots later, Ellis was recalled to the Hamilton Bulldogs. In his return, Ellis scored with a screamer of a shot late in the third period to tie the game. While his production trailed off toward the end of the season, he still finished with 2.24 shots/game, and had earned the trust of the coaching staff. Perhaps most importantly, the Canadiens organization had felt he had done enough to earn a one-year contract extension to prove that it wasn’t a fluke.

49 games, 11 goals, 28 points, and an AHL All-Star Game appearance later, Ellis proved not only that it wasn’t a fluke, but that he was just getting started.

This turnaround has come without any dramatic improvement in physical tools. Ellis is still a somewhat lumbering skater with a habit of occasional indecisiveness in the defensive zone; however, his offensive flair evident in his final QMJHL career has returned, and may even been better. Every now and then Ellis showcases his vision with a tremendous cross-seam or stretch pass. Sometimes he will dangle through the opposition, showcasing a level of skill that Ellis hasn’t shown since the QMJHL.

The booming slapshot is still evident, and no longer is Ellis just finding twine on the powerplay. In fact, Ellis has gone from potting 70.4% of his QMJHL goals on the man-advantage, to 27.3% this year (and 30.8% in the ECHL last year). While he hasn’t been as lethal on the powerplay, being able to score at even-strength will go a long way for Ellis, whose NHL potential is most likely on the third pairing.

And that rock-solid defensive game that won him the 2011-2012 QMJHL Defensive Defender of the Year? Not only is it still here, but it has enabled Ellis to emerge as the IceCaps’ number one defender on both sides of the puck. The little details are what made Ellis so successful in the QMJHL and continues to make him so successful in the AHL. Even with now-NHL defender Mark Barberio in the lineup, Ellis’s commitment to defensive side was still impressive.

Confidence: It can work wonders for professional athletes. Ellis is no different.

It turned Morgan Ellis’s career around: From the ECHL to AHL All-Star.

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