Ryan Ellis thriving in veteran role with Team Canada

Sportsnet's Ryan Dixon caught up with former NHL defenceman Alexander Khavanov, who shared his thoughts on new Maple Leafs d-man Nikita Zaitsev, free agent forward Vadim Shipachyov and just how important the world championship is to Russians.

MOSCOW – One look at the garden of ginger whiskers that adorn Ryan Ellis’s face and you can understand how the guy might hear “great beard” a lot.

But greybeard? That one doesn’t seem to suit a player who’s just 25 years old — until you really do the math.

“I’d be happy to give him that title,” said Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly. “He’s played for Hockey Canada a lot of times and he’s always been a big-time player for them.”

That was once again the case on Saturday night in Moscow as Ellis—who joined Team Canada two games before the start of the medal round—notched the winning goal in a 4-3 semifinal victory over the United States. Canada now has a chance at back-to-back world championship titles when it faces Finland for gold on Sunday, while Team USA will go for its second consecutive bronze medal in the third-place contest versus the host Russians.

Ellis’s decisive strike came 1:34 into the third period when he took a pass from defence partner Ryan Murray, found himself a little room in the American zone thanks to a bad line change and unleashed the kind of shot that’s always made him an offensive threat.

“That was a rocket,” said Canadian coach Bill Peters. “That was a bomb.”

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While it seems odd to bestow veteran status on Ellis given his relatively tender age, that label also has a lot to do with the international experience Rielly referenced. Ellis represented Canada three times at the world junior championship, winning one gold medal and a pair of silvers. In 19 career world junior showings, Ellis has an impressive 25 points. He also suited up for Canada two years ago at the 2014 world championship.

Rielly was on that squad, too, so he knew exactly what to expect when Ellis joined this year’s Canadian entry after his Nashville Predators were bounced in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“He’s been shooting the puck extremely well, skating, making a good first pass; doing all the things he always does,” said Rielly. “He’s been a huge addition and he obviously had a huge impact on the game tonight.”

Another Canadian player who really has a history with Ellis is left winger Taylor Hall. The pair starred together on Windsor Spitfire teams that won Memorial Cups in 2009 and ’10, while also teaming up on the 2010 Canadian team that won silver at the world juniors.

Sometimes a good player comes to Team Canada and sort of gets lost in the mix. But in the case of Ellis, skating for the national team might actually allow him a bigger role than he has with the Predators, where the top pair of Roman Josi and Shea Weber log a ton of ice time.

“He’s a guy who gets overshadowed by other guys in Nashville and since he’s got here he’s been a real calming influence,” said Hall. “It seems like he’s in the offensive zone every shift he plays.”

While not every player would be anxious to hop on a plane bound for Russia after his team endured a difficult seven-game loss in the playoffs, Ellis was only too happy to make the trip.

“It’s always a huge honour to suit up,” he said. “When I got the call I was very excited and would never pass up this kind of opportunity.”

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That request came because Peters and the Canadian staff recognized the track record Ellis has quietly amassed. This past year, he registered 32 points in 79 games while forming an impressive pair with another player who joined the worlds in progress, Sweden’s Mattias Ekholm.

“When we brought Ellie over, we talked about his six rounds of NHL playoffs, fifth-year pro, and it shows,” Peters said. “His compete is very high, his hockey sense is elite level.”

While Ellis has been a fantastic late addition for Canada, centre Derick Brassard has been an offensive catalyst all tournament. After Team USA scored three consecutive second-period goals to take a 3-2 advantage, Brassard struck back with a power-play marker to even things up. Brassard currently leads Canada in scoring with 11 points in nine outings.

“He’s a guy I didn’t know too much about,” said Hall, who’s flanked the New York Rangers centre at the event. “He’s a lot of fun to play with. He’s hard in his own end, but really creative in the offensive zone and guys like that are a joy to be out there with.”

Given the same applies to Hall’s old buddy Ellis on the blue line, Canada is in fantastic shape heading into the tournament’s biggest game.

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