At least for the time being, one of the most experienced players at Checkers training camp also has the least amount of job security.
Despite playing 165 NHL games over the past six seasons, goalie Dan Ellis
, 32, is in Charlotte on a professional tryout contract
. Though failing to make the team wouldn’t be the end of his career by any means, out of the 36 players in attendance, he’s the only one without a firm backup plan should that occur.
It’s a little different than what he’s used to, but he’s prepared to earn his chance.
“Even though this is my 10th camp it feels like my first,” he said following the team’s first practice at Extreme Ice Center on Saturday. “There’s definitely no room to slack off and rest on my past experience.”
A few different factors led Ellis, who spent the last two seasons backing up All-Star netminder Jonas Hiller with the Anaheim Ducks, to this point. First there’s the NHL’s labor stoppage, which prevented him from earning a more firm commitment from another organization, but he didn’t cite that as the most important.
Instead, Ellis believes it was the injury that caused him to miss the second half of last season that limited his job options this summer.
“I tore my groin off the bone (in January) and a sports hernia happened at the same time,” he said. “Unfortunately it took another eight weeks to catch the hernia, and I just ran out of time in the season and could only come back for the last game.
“Going into the summer, I felt good enough to play and practice, but with the season ending I just couldn’t get my reps in. In a way I was glad to have the long summer to let it heal properly and take care of it, because now I feel better than I did before.”
Despite the additional stroke of bad luck caused by his hernia going undetected for so long – he estimates he could have returned a month earlier if identified right away – Ellis actually considers himself a bit fortunate.
“I think it’s worked out for me,” he said. “Now I have an opportunity to play in the American League instead of being locked out like a lot of other guys.”
Now claiming that his injury is fully behind him, Ellis is taking the time to get back up to game speed and learn more about the organization that only surfaced on his radar one week before it was time to hit the ice.
“The biggest thing I noticed right away was the amount of ex-players who have stayed around,” said Ellis, who worked with coach Jeff Daniels, Cory Stillman and Glen Wesley during Saturday’s practice and also cited fellow front-office members Rod Brind’Amour and Ron Francis as examples. “When you have an organization that’s built on its own past, I think that really helps with the way they interact with the players. Even at fitness testing and on the ice today I could tell the difference.”
It remains to be seen how much longer that experience will last. Ellis will be up against incumbents Justin Peters, who was on course to back up Cam Ward with the Carolina Hurricanes prior to the lockout, and John Muse, who played extremely well while filling in at Charlotte and winning the ECHL’s playoff MVP award with the Florida Everblades.
Daniels, who saw his projected goaltenders change almost weekly over the summer for one reason or another, acknowledged the dilemma.
“We’ve got two guys who have been in the NHL before in Ellis and a guy like Peters who pushes himself to be better every day and did well when he got the chance in Carolina,” he said. “Then you’ve got Muse who came up last year when we were really down and out and helped us out a lot. It’ll be a really interesting week for the goalies we have here.”
Even with that depth, which includes offseason signing Rob Madore from the University of Vermont, Daniels affirmed that Ellis will get his chance to stick around on a more permanent basis.
“We told the guys that we’re going to look at every option to make our team better,” he said. “If another player gives us the chance to do that, then we have to give it a look.”