Look down the list of save percentage leaders in the NHL, and right behind Craig Anderson, rookie Viktor Fasth, and Roberto Luongo, you’ll find a big surprise — Dan Ellis.

Sure, it’s just a small sampling of four games, but his 1.99 goals-against average and .939 SV% is quite an impressive start to his first season with Carolina. Included in his four appearances is a 33-save shutout over the red-hot Senators and a brilliant 40-save effort in a 1-0 win over Buffalo.

When it comes to telling Ellis’ revival story from a frustrating end to his season with Anaheim, a chapter deservedly goes to goalie coach Corey Wogtech.

Wogtech, the founder of W Goaltending, spent time with Ellis over the summer making some technical adjustments to his game in order to make him a more consistent and positionally sound goaltender.

The time spent on the ice not only helped Ellis get back into game shape after recovering from a serious groin injury that required surgery, it also helped him land an AHL contract with the Charlotte Checkers.

Ellis made the most of his opportunity, going 8-7-2 with a 2.46 GAA and .922 SV% in the AHL during the lockout. His strong play was timed perfectly with Carolina trading Brian Boucher back to Philadelphia, Mike Murphy being released from his contracted in the KHL with Spartak, and GM Jim Rutherford deciding to keep Justin Peters in the AHL so he could keep developing and gaining confidence.

So with plenty of NHL experience and a more refined style in his back pocket, Ellis rightfully earned a new one-year pro-rated contract with Carolina.

Cam Ward’s rusty start to the season opened the door for Ellis to appear in four of Carolina’s first eight games. His most recent performance was a disappointment (lifted after allowing four goals on 12 shots), but considering how far he has come since undergoing surgery, Ellis has proved that he can still win in the NHL.

After observing Ellis in two of his first four performances, it was easy for me to see that he’s a much more patient and confident goaltender.

From my perspective, I saw a goalie that was doing a lot less reaching. Instead of relying more on his reflexes and athleticism, there was more balance to his overall save selections, and it was improving his rebound control. He wasn’t forced to move as much to make second saves, he was more centered in the crease, and he seemed more comfortable staying inside the blue paint by trusting his angles and his net coverage.

I also noticed that Ellis was not as aggressive as often as before, but still showcased an ability to push into shots in order to take time and space away from shooters. And while the quickness and instincts are clearly still in tact despite the time between NHL starts, as Wogtech explained, the changes to Ellis’ game didn’t happen overnight.

“Over the past two summers, we’ve spent a lot of time working on positioning and angle management. Dan worked hard on his skating and body mechanics in order to better position himself to make saves. This was a big change for him considering how wide his stance had grown over the years,” Wogtech said. “We wanted to eliminate his need to reach for pucks, and ultimately force pucks closer to his body.”

Not reaching for pucks is an important concept; it allows a goalie to stay centered in the net and not get caught with loud or “happy” feet. If you’re not reaching for pucks, and if your feet are fully set when shots are taken, in most instances, you don’t have to work so hard to regain edges, or adjust as much to achieve the appropriate angle (or body positioning) when you’re asked to make a second or third save.

The less you reach or lunge to make an initial save, the easier it is to seal those small holes under the arms, or to keep a strong seal to the ice with your leg pads (see clip below).

But once again, this was no simple process for Ellis. As easy as it can be for NHL goaltenders to implement changes into their game, re-training the body (muscle memory) to make even the slightest adjustments takes time.

“During the process, we focused on Dan’s foot width and angle adjustments, which has resulted in faster, better positioning while on his feet, allowing for more patient, controlled first saves,” Wogtech said. “Once his standing positioning had been simplified, we transitioned to his down movement in tight, and I think this has been the most notable change thus far.”

A good example of the simplified standing positioning is seen in this highlight clip above. It’s a simple save on the surface, but there’s a lot of good things here.

Ellis isn’t down early when the puck is along the goal line near the boards, and he stays patient on his skates when Tyler Ennis funnels the puck behind the goal. Furthermore, he doesn’t over-slide when Cody Hodgson one-times an excellent pass from behind the net. A subtle and small push with the skates as he drops improves his depth, then Ellis has the sense and wherewithal to squeeze the left elbow to his side and absorb a good scoring chance without allowing a rebound.

Wogtech and I have been good friends for a few years now, so we chatted online about some of the improvements we’ve seen from Ellis that we may not have seen in the past with Nashville and Tampa Bay.

“To me, the biggest change has been his ability to make first saves on passing plays and then follow them up with rebound saves. Previously, he seemed to make a lot of spread out saves, and he would struggle to readjust for a second save in tight,” Wogtech said. “With the changes he has made, he comes across the net strong with all of his body parts, doesn’t reach, makes great saves, and then readjusts and does it again on the rebound.”

Another good example of this is seen in the clip below.

“He’s rarely out of position anymore, and it has given him the ability to battle around the net. His patience is allowing him to better control initial saves, and his work down low has made him much tougher to beat on rebound attempts,” Wogtech said.

Over the years, I’ve learned an important lesson from watching goalies like Ellis refine their game.

When it comes to positioning, depth in the crease is a “sweet spot” that really depends on the overall body composition of the goalie, and then the situation. In some instances, a goalie will feel more comfortable being a bit more aggressive. But some days, it will pay off to play a little deeper. It really just depends on what is transpiring in front of you, and that’s why “read and react” is such a key phrase in goaltending today.

Depth can also be influenced by the environment you’re in; different teams create different defensive obstacles and dynamics for a team and their goalie, and that’s why NHL netminders put more time and energy into doing their homework and pre-scouting their opponents. Knowing who is a lefty, who is a righty, who is heating up, who is finding the net…these are all key components to preparing for a big game.

At the end of the day, while Ellis has made great strides with his technical game since last April, the support he has received from Wogtech, plus Carolina’s goalie coach tandem of Tom Barrasso and (Barrasso now coaches in the KHL) Greg Stefan have helped him regain a strong foothold as a full-time NHL goaltender.

But none of this would’ve been possible without a strong work ethic, and a re-dedication to strength training and skill improvement.

“Throughout the rehab process, Dan was able to repair and strengthen those damaged areas, and once we hit the ice, he continued with a lot of on-ice leg work,” Wogtech concluded. “We changed some of his hip mechanics in the down position, and the combination of those changes with healthy rehabbed muscles have seemed to create a much stronger game for him down low.”

A strong low game is everything, for as the old goalie adage goes, “If you control the ice, you control the game.”

For Ellis, stopping 93 of his first 99 shots this season is still a pretty small sample size. But for those that have observed his overall performance, it’s big enough to know he’s on the right path to sustaining his NHL career beyond this season.

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