When Dan Ellis was signed by the Tampa Bay Lightning as an unrestricted free agent this past summer, the thought was that he would either grab the number one job or push Mike Smith to take hold.
Neither scenario has occurred as of the beginning of December.
It was known before the season began that Guy Boucher doesn’t like labels as to which is his number one netminder and who is his backup. His feeling is that his number one is whoever happens to be in net that night.
That’s fine, to a point. It’s one thing if both are playing like a number one and are rotating, but that has not been the case so far.
The problem is that neither Ellis nor Smith have been able to take a firm hold of the reigns when given the opportunity. Both have excelled when coming off the bench in relief, and then played well for a couple of games – only to be pulled in favor of the other shortly thereafter.
Through the club’s first 25 games, the two have played a very similar amount of minutes (Ellis 776, Smith 733).
Ellis has the better goals-against average (2.86 compared to Smith’s 3.36) and save percentage (.894 compared to Smith’s .879), while Smith has the better record (8-4-0 compared to Ellis’ 6-4-3).
Ellis also has the only two shutouts that the Lightning have recorded thus far in the 2010-11 campaign.
However, Smith appeared to have had the upper hand in recent weeks.
Smith relieved Ellis in the first period of a game on November 18th in Philadelphia against the Flyers, a wild contest in which Tampa came back from several two-goal deficits to win.
He would go on to start the next four games - including wins over the Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers – before Smith was pulled midway through a 6-0 loss to the division rival Washington Capitals.
Ellis started the next game, a 4-3 shootout loss to the Florida Panthers. While it was a loss, Ellis kept the Bolts in the game in an overtime that saw the Panthers register all six shots. He also gave up just one goal in the four-round shootout, but none of the four Tampa Bay shooters could solve Tomas Vokoun.
Boucher came right back with Ellis in the next game this past Tuesday night in Toronto. While the Lightning ended up pulling out a come-from-behind victory in overtime, Ellis gave up a couple of weak goals. The first, scored by Kris Versteeg, was the direct result of his own giveaway. The other was when he went behind the net to cut off a dump in – which hit a bad spot on the glass, kicked out in front of the empty net, and was put in by Maple Leaf forward Nikolai Kulemin.
While Smith had a four-game win streak snapped against the Capitals, Ellis has not been able to win more than two consecutive starts all year.
Tonight, the Bolts faceoff against a team that has one of the hottest goalies in the entire league. The Boston Bruins have Tim Thomas, who is in the top three of every major statistical goaltending category. He leads the league with five shutouts and an incredible .955 save percentage, is second in goals-against average at 1.46, and third in wins with 12.
While some of Thomas’ stats will more than likely drop over the course of a long season, his play shows just how far a netminder playing out of his mind can carry an NHL team.
Ellis is signed through next season, but Smith will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He understands that he has a lot to prove for a young, up-and-coming club like the Lightning to have interest in him beyond this season.
GM Steve Yzerman will have some interesting decisions to make over the next three months prior to the trade deadline. Still nearly $11 million below the upper salary cap limit, Yzerman has some time to see if Tampa Bay can continue to be a threat to qualify for the postseason.