The Hurricanes got kind of lucky with Dan Ellis falling into their laps at the beginning of the year. They were planning on entering the season with Justin Peters as their back-up, but the NHL lockout caused a few players to find work in other leagues and it led to Ellis signing a professional tryout contract with the Charlotte Checkers, Carolina's AHL affiliate. Ellis put up some very impressive numbers in Charlotte while splitting the starting job with Justin Peters there and he eventually won Carolina's back-up job in training camp once the NHL season resumed.
Goaltending was somewhat of a hot button issue for the Hurricanes this year. After Cam Ward got off to a rocky start, the team was able to turn to Ellis to provide a few solid appearances in relief of him. Ellis allowed only seven goals on 122 shots in his first six games with the Canes and around that time, he was praised as the back-up that this team has needed for years. Some fans were even calling for Ellis to get more starts while Ward went through his struggles. After Ward suffered what turned out to be a season-ending injury, Charlotte's initial starting tandem of Ellis & Peters became Carolina's goaltending options and the results were not great.
Ellis finished the year with a save percentage of .906 and a record of 6-8-2, with seven of those losses coming after Ward's injury. Keeping Ellis around for another year appeared to be a slam dunk decision after how well he played as a back-up, but his numbers down the stretch is having some fans second guess whether or not the Hurricanes should re-sign him. Now a lot of people are questioning whether or not Ellis can handle a 20-25 game workload in a full-season and that he is an unreliable option should Ward suffer another injury.
Seeing how Ellis had a save percentage of .897 after taking over for Ward and had three games where he failed to stop 85% of the shots he faced, it's easy to see why there is some concern about Ellis heading into next year. However, before anyone jumps to the conclusion that Ellis is "washed up," let's remember that he suffered a pretty ugly injury at the end of the Hurricanes/Devils game on March 22, where he cut his leg open with one of his own skate blades while making a desperation save. Prior to that injury, Ellis had a save percentage of .918 over 12 games which is very solid for a back-up. After the injury, his save percentage was .898 over seven games and he had three "blow-ups" in that stretch. It might be easy to point to Ellis' late-season struggle as evidence that he can't handle a starter's workload, but it seems more likely that the injury affected his play late in the year and he might have been rushed back from it.
No matter what the case is, the Hurricanes need to make a decision regarding their back-up goaltender and bringing back Ellis for another year is one of their options. It certainly looks to be a safer option than giving the back-up job to Peters or finding another goaltender through free agency. With the goalie market being the way it is and the Canes having limited cap space, it's not going to be an easy decision for the Canes. Looking back at the season Ellis had with the Canes, he made a decent case to be the back-up here for at least another season.
Dan Ellis 2012-13
Since Ellis was playing in the AHL during the lockout, he didn't much time to get into game shape and he was fantastic in his first few starts. Eventually, he cooled down and had a save percentage of around .920-.925 for most of the year. Had Ellis ended the year with those numbers, he would have been signed to at least a one-year extension by now but that clearly wasn't how things worked out. After Game 12, Ellis' numbers went on a downward spiral and now the back-up job is basically open season.
As you probably could have guessed, Game 12 is when Ellis suffered a leg laceration and it was estimated that he would miss about two weeks of action. He returned a little ahead of schedule and allowed eight goals on 37 shots on his following two starts. Ellis' wasn't as severe, but it took Ward about a month to recover from a similar injury a few years ago, so it isn't crazy to think that Ellis may have been rushed back when you take that into consideration.
Like any goaltender, Ellis will have his share of bad games and he was probably playing a little over his head at the beginning of the year, but I'm still hesitant to put a lot the blame of him for the Canes late-season struggles. Yes, he wasn't good after returning from the injury, but he didn't receive a lot of support from the team in front of him. A couple days ago, I talked about how all three Carolina goaltenders were forced to see a high number of shots per game with Ellis ranking in the Top 10 in the NHL in shot attempts faced. Not only was Ellis handling a big workload, but he also received very little goal support, which made it tough for the Hurricanes to win in many of his starts.
The Canes scored fewer than two even strength goals per 60 minutes while Ellis was in net and were giving up about 45 shots per hour in addition to that. This means that Ellis was under a lot of pressure to "steal" wins for the Hurricanes in a lot of his starts, which obviously isn't fair to him. Ellis took a lot of criticism for letting in "bad" goals that put the Hurricanes out of reach in many of their games. He was the one charged with letting in the infamous goal to Martin Brodeur and was caught traveling a few times, leaving a vacant net in the process. Those goals hurt, but I feel like those moments are going to happen when your team's defense gives up as many shots against as the Canes did this past year. Like they do with Ward, the Hurricanes expected Ellis to bail them out of too many bad situations this past year.
Another criticism against Ellis is he isn't "consistent" enough to be a reliable back-up, but I think this the case with all goalies since all of them go through hot and cold stretches. With Ellis, however, the Hurricanes saw him at his best and his worst this season.
Over his entire career, Ellis has gone through a lot of highs and lows, with him being a brick-wall during his best games and an absolute sieve when he goes through a rough patch. The Hurricanes saw both versions of Ellis this year and unfortunately, the lwo point he experienced this year was one of the worst stretches of his career. The last time he performed that poorly was three years ago when he played in Tampa Bay.
Going by his career numbers, Ellis' "true talent level" is somewhere between .905-.915 going by save percentage, since he has consistently put up those kinds of numbers over his career. His performance on the ice, however, has been anything but consistent because he goes through some serious extremes throughout the course of a year.
Season Grade: B
His rough patch aside, I think Ellis provided the Hurricanes with decent goaltending for most of the year. He gave the Hurricanes a solid chance of winning in 10 out of his 19 starts and had only four really bad performances. Three of those games were unfortunately bunched together, but Ellis was solid for the majority of the season. He was also coming off a pretty serious groin injury and his NHL future was in jeopardy until the Checkers took a chance on him. Ellis was able to work his way back to the NHL by playing well during the lockout and put himself back on the map as an unrestricted free agent this off-season. Whether or not the Hurricanes want to bring him back is their decision.
The Final Word
The decision to re-sign Ellis is going to be tough for the Hurricanes because Peters is signed to a one-way deal next year, the team doesn't have much cap space and other teams might be willing to give Ellis a shot at a starting job. With Carolina, Ellis' ceiling is a back-up since Ward isn't going anywhere for the time being and there is a chance that he might want more than that. Personally, I think Ellis played well enough to earn himself another year with the Hurricanes at back-up money, but another team might be willing to offer him more if they are really unsure about their goalie situation. The Canes got very lucky with Ellis falling into their laps this year and unless Peters improves, it's unlikely that they'll be able to find someone as good as him this off-season.