Just minutes into a Windsor Spitfires intrasquad scrimmage in 2007, former Spitfires and Flyers forward Eric Wellwood realized he completely underestimated rookie defenseman Ryan Ellis.
Wellwood’s misconception began a few months earlier when the Spitfires selected the 5-foot-10, 179-pound Ellis in the second round, 22nd overall in the 2007 OHL draft. The previous season, the average Spitfires defenseman measured 6-foot-1 and weighed roughly 200 pounds.
“They liked big size guys, and then they drafted this little guy that all the sudden, came to camp and you could tell right away that he was the best defenseman,” Wellwood said.
“You can watch a player and you can kind of tell what they’re thinking and he’s always thinking the game,” Wellwood, now head coach of the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers, said. “He’s not just going out there to play. He’s thinking the game and playing it like chess, almost. You could tell every single play that he made was the right play.”
For the last 15 years, Ellis, a self-described “pretty smart kid” in grade school, has used his intelligence to compensate for his lack of size. Naturally, he enjoyed studying science more than any other subject in school. From dissecting fetal pigs to picking apart an opponent’s forecheck, Ellis was interested in understanding how life, and each play in a hockey game, worked.
That mindset carried Ellis to the pinnacles of success at every level of the sport, from back-to-back Memorial Cup wins with the Spitfires, three medals at the World Juniors Championships for Canada, a Stanley Cup Final run with the Nashville Predators in 2017, and now to the top pairing of the Flyers.
“It was more a game within the game of me outsmarting, whether it be the guy next to me or the guy making the play or whatever it was,” Ellis said. “Honestly, it just came naturally to me. That’s how I survived, I guess.”
An offensive defenseman
Dating back to his junior career, Ellis, 30, has been recognized for his elite offensive skills. Flyers forward Scott Laughton, who played for the OHL’s Oshawa Generals, has been familiar with the Hamilton, Ontario native since junior.
“I think he was the best player in junior I’ve ever played against, honestly,” Laughton said. “I was asked that question a couple years ago, and I always go back to him. Their team was so good. He was dominant.”
As a 17-year-old at his first World Juniors in 2009, Ellis was selected by Canada because of his power-play prowess. In a six-on-five scenario when Canada pulled its goalie down 5-4 to Russia in the semifinals, Ellis made a great play to keep the puck in the offensive zone. His play led to Jordan Eberle’s game-tying goal, as Canada went on to win gold.
Later that year, the Predators drafted Ellis 11th overall before taking defenseman Mattias Ekholm in the fourth round, 102nd overall.
“When he came in, he was all offense,” Ekholm said. “Like, almost only power play for some of the World Juniors that I remember way back in the day. So he was so offensive, but as he came to development camps and as we started to grow up with the minor league system and then with Nashville, he just became really solid defensively, too, which is really impressive for a guy his size.”
During the 2013-14 season, Ellis and Ekholm sought to become mainstays on a Predators blue line filled with talented defensemen including Shea Weber, Roman Josi, and Seth Jones. Midway through the season, coach Barry Trotz paired the two youngsters together.
Quickly, the duo made an impact on the ice. In over 300 minutes, they allowed just 2.45 goals 60 minutes and scored 3.6 goals for per 60, according to Evolving-Hockey.
Early chemistry paved the way to consistency for the Ellis-Ekholm pairing, which became a fixture on the Predators’ blue line for the next two seasons. On the ice, their styles of play aligned. Ekholm acknowledged that he and Ellis took pride in their plus-minus numbers (combined, they finished plus-20 in 2014-15 and plus-27 in 2015-16).
For Ellis, the key to building chemistry with any defensive partner is rooted beyond hockey.
“The building block of it is getting along more or less away from the rink or off the ice to the point that you’re friends, best friends,” Ellis said. “It makes it easier ... if I don’t like something he’s doing or he doesn’t like something I’m doing, that he can tell me and it wouldn’t be taken to heart.”
Ellis and Ekholm placed small deposits in the friendship bank daily, catching up in the locker room before practices. They spent road trips playing video games and watching TV next to each other on the plane.
“I know him to the backbone and I think he knows me inside out,” Ekholm said. “That helped us for sure.”
Ellis brought that same approach to building chemistry with his new partner for the 2016-17 season, Josi.
“For me as a D partner, he’s just such a reliable guy to play with because you always know he’s going to make the right decision, he’s gonna pick the right play and he kind of sees the game a step ahead of other guys,” Josi said. “His hockey sense is unbelievable — and the way he moves the puck.”
Ellis’ reliability allowed Josi to flourish. In 2019-20, their fourth year as a pairing, Josi exploded for career highs of 16 goals, 49 assists, and 65 points. At the conclusion of the season, Josi won the Norris Trophy, the award given to the league’s best defenseman.
“He’s obviously one of the biggest reasons that I won that Norris Trophy ‘cause just the way I think we play together,” Josi said of Ellis. “I think we just knew each other so well and I feel like I always knew where he was gonna be on the ice. He knew where I was gonna be.
“The way he plays, he was that security blanket for me.”
Attached at the hip
On July 17, 2021, the Flyers acquired Ellis in exchange for defenseman Phil Myers and forward Nolan Patrick. By trading for Ellis, Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher finally paired Ivan Provorov with an elite partner. Provorov previously excelled alongside veteran Matt Niskanen in 2019-20, the former racking up 13 goals, 23 assists and finishing a plus-11.
In 2020-21, Provorov rotated through four defensive partners. He finished the 56-game season with seven goals and tied career lows with 19 assists and 26 points.
“I think last year doesn’t describe anyone on our team as a player or us as a team,” Provorov said. “I think having a consistent partner is definitely better.”
Despite their familiarity with each other as players, when the two met for the first time on Sep. 13, Ellis didn’t recognize Provorov without a helmet.
“He had long hair in the pictures that I saw,” Ellis said. “So he walked up and it was, I don’t know, two weeks before camp. And he’s pretty clean cut now and short hair and all that. So he shook my hand and he wasn’t too loud. I didn’t say, ‘Who are you?’ But I listened and he’s like, ‘I’m Ivan.’ I’m like, wait. Ivan, like ... OK.”
In the weeks that followed, the duo made a concerted effort to get to know each other. Provorov helped Ellis feel comfortable in his new environment. They started to eat lunch and stretch together before practice. Over time, Ellis began to see a less intense side of Provorov.
“He takes hockey very seriously,” Ellis said. “I mean, he’s got a great personality, but I think the one thing, he catches me off guard with some of his jokes. Cause it’s like, was that a joke or are you serious?”
The pair shared a cart when the team went golfing before the start of the season. Ellis, Provorov said, is the superior golfer — “But I just started,” Provorov added. “Got to give me a little slack.”
“I’ll agree,” Ellis said. “But he’s good. He had a good round the other day when he played.”
The early returns of the Ellis-Provorov partnership, both five-on-five and on the power play, are encouraging. Through four games, they’ve combined for five points and are a plus-6. As the rock Provorov has been looking for since his separation from Niskanen, Ellis is already starting to see as much promise in Provorov as he did in Josi and Ekholm.
“For all of us, it was an easy match and I feel like it’s starting to come together with Prov like that, too, where he wants to win just as bad as anyone,” Ellis said. “And playing the right way, which is how he plays and I find myself the same way, makes it easy to play with [him].”