NHL

'Hidden gems' of the Predators emerge in Stanley Cup playoffs

It took 20 years, ages in hockey terms, for the franchise to finally reach the Western Conference final, and the spotlight has unearthed some of the team's best-kept secrets.

Ryan Ellis, Viktor Arvidsson key players in Nashville's 1st conference final

Defenceman Ryan Ellis, centre, was a first-round pick, but his re-emergence as a blue-line stud for the Predators has helped fuel their dominant playoff performance. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

The Nashville Predators were named after the sabre-toothed tiger bones discovered underneath their future arena in 1971. The creature had been extinct for at least 10,000 years.

It took 20 years, ages in hockey terms, for the franchise to finally reach the Western Conference final, and the spotlight has unearthed some of the team's best-kept secrets. Swedish speedster Viktor Arvidsson, P.K. Subban running mate Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis, the highly decorated former first round pick who's averaging more 24 minutes per-game in the playoffs, have emerged on the big stage.

"I don't think there's near the press coverage that other teams may have, which I guess results in hidden gems so to say," said Ellis, who sports a brown beard likely longer than all others this spring.

Former first-rounder finds groove

In the case of Ellis, it's more of a re-emergence.

The Hamilton native was a point-producing machine on the Windsor Spitfires squad that briefly ripped apart the Ontario Hockey League with back-to-back Memorial Cup wins. He had 89 points in 57 games in his draft year, besting the next closest defenders — Subban, who played for Belleville, and future Washington Capital John Carlson, who was with London — by 13 points.

The Preds grabbed him with the 11th overall pick in 2009, but over his first three seasons in the NHL, Ellis scratched out only a supporting role — he averaged 14-16 minutes — on a Nashville defence loaded with aces like Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Seth Jones and Roman Josi.

Opportunity eventually opened up. Suter left for Minnesota via free agency; Weber was dealt for Subban and Jones was traded to Columbus for Ryan Johansen — a move made because Ellis and Ekholm were deemed ready to assume greater roles, general manager David Poile said at the time.

Ellis, who had career-highs with 16 goals, 38 points and an average of almost 24 minutes during the regular season, credits his emergence to the Peter Laviolette-led coaching staff, which replaced Barry Trotz, the only coach in franchise history, in 2014. Laviolette's up-tempo style has found a fit with Ellis — a slick puck-mover and transporter — "but the biggest thing, I think, is just the trust that the coaches have given me and the opportunity as well."

"I'd never really received that until they got here," said Ellis, who's signed for two more seasons at a mild $2.5 million US cap hit. "My game kind of took off from that belief in them and the chance they gave me."

Because he was such a prolific point-producer before he came to the NHL, Ellis believes he had to shed the perception that he was a weak defensive player. He's probably the weakest link among the current top four defenders on the Preds, but he managed to lead the club with 137 blocked shots during the regular season, adding 34 more so far in the playoffs.

Housley helps

Beyond increased opportunity, Ellis credits Phil Housley, the Hall of Fame defenceman who serves as an assistant coach, for helping him and the Preds defence reach "a whole new level".

Though he never saw Housley play live or even on TV — he was born during the 1991 season when Housley racked up 76 points in 78 games for Winnipeg — Ellis has caught highlights of his coach.

"I know he's remembered as one of the best skaters from defence — his puck sense, his puck-moving ability and his offensive instincts are really one of the best in the game to ever play from a defensive position," Ellis said of Housley, who ranks fourth all-time among NHL defenders with 1,232 points. "The opportunity to learn from someone like that, you really can't replace the value he brings to players and their game."

Ellis' own breakout didn't really come this spring or even this season. It was last year that truly stepped into a more prominent role, playing mostly beside Ekholm, another one of the Preds' "hidden gems".

Swedes step up

Plucked from a tier-2 Swedish league with 102nd overall pick in that same 2009 draft as Ellis, the 26-year-old Swede has been effectively combating top lines alongside Subban in the post-season.

Then there's Arvidsson, another late draft weekend steal and third member of the dangerous Nashville top line, which also includes Johansen and Filip Forsberg. Arvidsson was the oldest player picked at the 2014 draft (he was 21), plucked 112th overall by the Preds from the Swedish Hockey League.

The 24-year-old tied for the team lead with a career-high 31 goals and 61 points this season — he kills penalties too — before adding another seven points in 12 playoff games, including a pair of assists in Nashville's Game 2 defeat in Anaheim on Sunday night (the series is tied 1-1).

"Really, our team as a whole and all the players on it have been continuously getting better and better every year," Ellis said.

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