Brian the battler: Elliott thrives in new environment

Ranking the surprising developments in Brian Elliott’s hockey career, the goaltender’s success in the Blues’ crease this season may rank third on the list. Fourth if you count a half-hour conversation with NHL legend Bobby Orr.

BY JEREMY RUTHERFORD

ST. LOUIS, M.O. — Ranking the surprising developments in Brian Elliott’s hockey career, the goaltender’s success in the Blues’ crease this season may rank third on the list. Fourth if you count a half-hour conversation with NHL legend Bobby Orr.

Elliott, 26, might never have been drafted had his junior team not played 20 minutes from the home of Ottawa Senators scout Frank Jay, who drove to the rink on nights he was “off” because it was close to his home.

Elliott’s name wouldn’t have been in the draft had Toronto-area goalie coach Ken Boyce not told him he had nothing to lose. His relationship with Boyce only existed because a chance meeting at a sporting goods store.

Elliott never would have experienced an NCAA championship at Wisconsin if prospect Mike Brodeur, the Badgers’ first choice at the position, hadn’t lost his college eligibility. And the only reason Elliott was on the school’s radar was because he was drafted.

“I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason,” Elliott says with a little laugh. “I never really thought being an NHL goalie wasn’t an option, so I kept pushing, almost naive. I never wanted to do anything else.

“When my dad asked me once why I wanted to be a goalie, I said, ‘I don’t want to come off the ice. I want to make a difference.’”

Elliott certainly has made a difference with the Blues. Jaroslav Halak has played well recently, but without Elliott, the club would not be solidly in fifth sixth place in the Western Conference with 42 points in 32 games. He leads the league in the three major goaltending categories — goals-against average (1.43), save percentage (. 948) and shutouts (four). He is 13-2 in the 16 games’s he’s started.

Elliott’s save percentage ranks ahead of Boston’s Tim Thomas, Vancouver’s Cory Schneider, Edmonton’s Nikolai Khabibulin and the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, who combined have an average salary of $16.5 million this season. Elliott will make $600,000 after agreeing to a two-way contract with the Blues, who could have sent him to the American Hockey League after training camp and only been on the hook for $105,000.

“You’re going to have to look pretty deep to find a story that’s bigger than Elliott’s story,” says Blues general manager Doug Armstrong.

“It would be disingenuous to say that we saw this coming and we were smarter than everybody else in the NHL. We knew he was solid, but the truth is, he’s come in and done a better job than we expected and we’re all benefiting from it. If there is a better story in the NHL this year, I’d like to read it.”

The road to St. Louis for Elliott began in the Toronto suburb of Newmarket. He played AAA hockey with York-Simcoe Express, where his coach was former Blue Mike Crombeen and his teammate was current Blues forward B.J. Crombeen.

“Playing with ‘Ells’ then, he was an honest, hardworking guy that came to work every day,” B.J. Crombeen says. “You could see those habits, that part of his personality, real early. He was always a good goalie for us, but I don’t think he was a highly rated prospect.”

At age 16, Elliott was not selected in the Ontario Hockey League draft. He later joined the Ajax Axemen Jr. A team, and in 39 games, he had a 3.86 GAA and a .903 save percentage.

“That team he played for was maybe the worst team in Canada at the Tier 2 level,” says Jay, the Senators’ scout who made the short drive from Oshawa. “Brian would see 55-60 shots per game. He would get beat 7-1, 8-3 often, but he never quit and showed a lot of potential. That’s why I would go back and see him play.”

Elliott was still a relatively unknown prospect and wasn’t even sure about his draft status. Boyce, whom the family had met coincidentally while shopping for goalie gear in Toronto, urged him to opt into the 2003 NHL draft.

“Someone called me from the NHL Central Scouting and was asking, ‘Are you going to opt in, because you have to do it by tonight,’” Elliott recalls. “So I called Ken and he said, ‘Why not throw your name in the hat and see what happens?’ I signed the form and faxed it in. It came down to that.”

On draft day, Elliott was working for Doug Orr, Bobby’s younger brother, as a goalie instructor at Seneca College hockey school in Toronto. Elliott hitched a ride home to Newmarket with Doug that day and was startled when he came through the front door.

“I said, ‘What have you heard today?” Bill Elliott, Brian’s dad, remembers.

“I was like, ‘What?’” Brian said.

“I said, ‘Well, let me congratulate you … you’ve been drafted by the Ottawa Senators!”

Those performances in front of Jay, the Senators’ scout, had paid off. Elliott was taken in the ninth round, 291st overall, the second-to-last pick in the entire draft.

But no matter.

“If that’s all I had in my hockey career, that would be awesome,” Elliott says. “But when somebody sees something in you, you want to prove them right. Being drafted in the ninth round, that was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. If I didn’t get drafted that year, I wouldn’t have gone to Wisconsin. That connection wouldn’t have been made.”

Elliott would have returned to junior hockey, but he always had an interest in playing college hockey in the U.S.

“Shortly after the draft, our assistant GM of the day, Peter Chiarelli, sent me an article,” Jay said. “It was about the University of Wisconsin being in trouble.”

Wisconsin had recruited Brodeur, but he was deemed ineligible after playing in two exhibition games in the WHL. Jay phoned Badgers coach Mike Eaves.

“I said I’m not a salesman,” Jay says, “but I gave him Brian’s name and I told him that I’m pretty sure that Brian’s father Bill has got a lot of tape on him.”

Bill Elliott, a longtime TV director in Canada, had “bins of tapes” of Brian patrolling the pipes. He sent Eaves the video and quickly got a phone call.

“He asked if we could come down that weekend,” Bill Elliott says. “We went and when we left Wisconsin and we told them we’d talk about it when we got home. But when we got back to the airport, Brian was saying, ‘Let’s just call them now.’”

A chat with Bobby Orr, arranged by Doug, solidified the decision to become a Badger.

“Bobby told Brian, ‘Listen kid, you’ve got the marks … why don’t you go play NCAA hockey in the States?” Bill Elliott recalls.

Elliott was the backup netminder at Wisconsin for his first two seasons, pitching three shutouts in nine games as a sophomore. He established a reputation early of battling for every puck, whether it was in a game or practice.

“He is a very, very competitive guy,” says Shane Connelly, Elliott’s goaltending partner at Wisconsin. “He’s not rah-rah. He’s really calm, but he hates giving up goals. You could just see how much it burned him.”

Says Elliott about his doggedness: “I think it’s easy not to try. That’s the easiest thing, just to give up. I guess it’s pride or something, but it just makes me want to stop everything. If they’re going to try, I’m going to try harder.”

In 2006, a junior season that was interrupted by a knee injury, Elliott went 27-5 with a 1.55 GAA and a .938 save percentage and eight shutouts in 35 starts. His last win came in the Frozen Four, a 2-1 win over Boston College in the championship game.

“That was unbelievable … my best moment up until this year in St. Louis,” Elliott says, who was an All-American that year.

After a decent senior season, Elliott signed with Ottawa, and after starting in the AHL, he was called up by the Senators. In 2009-10, he built a record of 29-18-4, helping the Sens into the playoffs. But in 2010-11, amid team-wide injuries, he had a 12-game losing streak before being dealt to Colorado.

The trade surprised Elliott, but he was philosophical: “You just hope for the best and see what happens.”

The team climate in Colorado, however, wasn’t any better. Elliott went 2-8-1 down the stretch with the Avalanche and he ended the season with a combined 3.34 GAA and .893 save percentage.

“I would think that his confidence for whatever reason went south,” Jay says.

Elliott was a restricted free agent after the season, but the Avs did not make him a qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent July 1.

“I had no idea what to expect,” Elliott said.

The Blues had three plans for their backup position: sign an experienced goalie, give the job to prospect Ben Bishop or sign a player to a two-way contract to compete with Bishop.

“Elliott was at the top of that (last) list,” Armstrong says. “There was real good history with him two years ago that he could compete at this level.”

But the Blues were asking Elliott to take a two-way contract.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow on that day,” he says. “But, you know, I’ve had to work for everything I’ve had, so I just figured that it was another time to work. I was pretty confident that I could do it again.”

Elliott battled Bishop for the job in training camp, and “there was really not enough to differentiate between the two,” Armstrong says, “so we went with the more experienced goaltender. From that point on, Elliott has just taken it and run with it.”

No kidding. On NHL.com, Elliott’s picture appears three times on the “league leaders” page.

“It’s amazing to see your son’s picture there,” says his father. “It’s hard to not burst your buttons thinking about it.”

Despite Elliott’s consistency through 16 starts, allowing more than two goals in a game only once, some continue to wonder if Elliott’s bubble will burst.

“There’s no indication that what he’s doing right now isn’t going to last,” Armstrong says. “He’s big, he’s strong, he’s very athletic, very technically sound, always prepared. His demeanour around the team is excellent and his confidence is certainly high.”

Adds Blues coach Ken Hitchcock: “I don’t think what we’re seeing is an accident or a fluke or just the puck hitting him. To me, he’s a perfect product of what happens when you put a lot of work and focus into something.”

Asked if he could take any special joy from his season so far, Elliott said: “Sure, it makes you smile. But you have to just take it, put it in your back pocket and move on. There are more games to play. I’ve seen both sides of the sword.”

For now, Elliott has a firm group on the sword’s handle.

“I didn’t think his stats would be this impressive right away,” says Connelly, his Badger teammate. “I thought he’d bide his time a little more and build his confidence. But he really had to fight for this, and if you put Brian Elliott in a battle, he’s going to come out a winner.”

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