Earning his spot: Panthers' Keaton Ellerby

WASHINGTON DC - DECEMBER 09: Keaton Ellerby #4 of the Florida Panthers brings the puck up the ice against the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center on December 9 2010 in Washington DC. The Panthers won the game 3-0. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

In the Panthers' final game of the 2009-10 season, through a snowstorm of inappropriately dropped confetti, 21 year-old defensive prospect Keaton Ellerby had been given his first real chance to shine. In that 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Ellerby logged 14:20 (the most he'd play that season after averaging 5:25 TOI) of assertive and physical hockey but more importantly his effort gave the franchise reason to at least reconsider future plans on the blueline; he displayed more than adequate capability...the riches of losing seasons were beginning to emerge.

Despite not making the following season's roster out of training camp, Keaton has quietly become a solid member of the Panthers new-look defensive core. His booming hits are becoming a thing of folklore around Sunrise, an underrated offensive ability is taking flight during this stretch run with 4 points in 8 games, and coach Peter DeBoer continues to entrust Ellerby and defensive partner Dmitry Kulikov with some of the team's toughest assignments; oh what a difference a year makes. 

In his final call-up of last season, Ellerby found himself to be more waterboy than player, never quite earning the trust of the coaching staff. After a summer of intense training in Calgary, Ellerby bulked up to 220 lbs from 200 while instilling a far more assertive approach to the game, Keaton looked poised to finally cement himself as an NHL regular. Despite Keith Ballard being shipped off to Vancouver, Ellerby was buried under organizational depth accrued by new General Manager Dale Tallon during the summer months. The additions of Mike Weaver, Nathan Paetsch, and top draft pick Erik Gudbranson greatly increased competition, and hurt Ellerby's chances of breaking through; despite a great showing, with what was widely believed to the best performance by a rookie at camp, Ellerby was back with the Rochester Americans in October.

 As Ellerby's luck would have it, Nathan Paetsch was soon traded away, Erik Gudbranson's contract talks stalled out at the last minute and he was sent back to the OHL, and the aging defensive core started to get banged up; by late in the season's first month the new and improved Ellerby would have his chance.

While his opportunities with the Panthers this season have been short lived, Ellerby has shown a great deal of development and proven himself to be a young and skilled NHL calibre defenseman, amassing 8 points in 29 games which is .28 points per game; when comparing other NHL rookie dmen (yes, Ellerby qualified for Rookie status this year) who've played 29 or more games, only seven have a higher points average--and all of them have benefited considerably from powerplay opportunities in comparison to Keaton who has yet to surpass the 13 minute-mark for the season.

Perhaps the most interesting statistic is that Ellerby is tied with Steven Kampfer of the Boston Bruins for giveaway efficiency, only giving up the puck .27 times a game-- in a league where puckmoving young defensemen are coveted, Ellerby is showing he's one of the best and most responsible young dmen with the puck in the entire league. It's not only his offensive prowess that is floating under the radar, it's his increased physicality and defensive play. Ellerby's prorated hit totals would put him around 3rd or 4th in the league amongst rookies; as well, he's ranked 9th in +/- for defenders who've played in as many or more games as him in their first year.

When Ellerby was drafted with the 10th overall pick in '07, some prematurely dubbed him as destined to take over the long-vacant Ed Jovanovski throne (a title since passed - fairly or not - to Gudbranson). Keaton hasn't yet delivered the consistent physicality and inherent assertiveness that JovoCop seemingly oozed from the start, but comparing results from the rookie seasons of Jovanovski and Ellerby are a bit shocking, placing Keaton in very good company.

 

 

P/PG

+/-

PIM/G

Ellerby

.28

1

0.35

Jovanoski

.30

-3

1.95

McCabe

.28

-23

1.9

 

Despite coming into camp this year meaner and nastier, Ellerby has played very cerebral hockey. While Jovanovski will always be associated with his motion picture namesake alter-ego (Jovocop), Keaton can be likened more closely to the Terminator: more concerned with the final result than any associated violence. He's conscious of his play and very responsible not to take a bad penalty or be caught out of position, a trap many "big hitters" fall prey to early in their careers.

 The effect Keaton Ellerby has on the Panthers team is made clearly visible when looking at Derek Zona's scoring chances data. Keaton Ellerby has been the most productive member of the defensive core when you tabulate a players total scoring chance efficency. When Ellerby is on the ice, the Panthers have a better chance of getting a scoring chance, then giving one up.

Player

CH%

Ellerby

0.613

Allen

0.520

Wideman

0.534

Kulikov

0.537

McCabe

0.537

Weaver

0.564

Callahan

0.609

Garrison

0.513

Def. Average

0.542

 

When one considers the positive progress Ellerby has made since this point a year ago, it's truly astonishing. Ellerby has grown into a very confident player and could be considered for the top spot on the Panthers' most-improved list. It's interesting to note that observers ridiculed former GM Randy Sexton's decision for keeping the young defender up with the Cats after the trade deadline, to be used sparingly in a trial-by-fire instead of getting his minutes with Rochester; Sexton believed the attention he'd get at the NHL level would be more beneficial to his development. Whether right or wrong, it's a much different approach to development and one can't help but think what that belief might have had if employed for the Grabner situation. Whatever the belief though one can't discount the hard work and perseverance the young bruising defenseman put into the off-season.

While it is uncertain that Ellerby will remain with the team in the near future, as captain - and pending UFA - Bryan McCabe eyes a return soon, Keaton's making life awfully difficult for Tallon to order a reassignment to Rochester.

If such a fate is in the cards, his play has already spoken loudly: "I'll be back".

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