By Bill Hoppe
Matt Ellis remembers sitting at home in Ontario nearly three years ago, unsure where his career would take him next. Los Angeles had just let him go, the second time in eight months he had to endure the uncertainty of waivers. As an undrafted fourth-liner, it appeared Ellis might never enjoy much stability.
Ellis had no idea then he was about to find a home. The Sabres, down two players to injury, claimed the hardworking forward late in the preseason.
“I thought, ‘You know what, maybe I’ll stay a little longer with some injury problems, maybe get a shot?’” Ellis recalled Wednesday, a day after signing a two-year contract with the Sabres. “I didn’t really have any expectations at that point.
“To be sitting here entering my fourth season, it’s an amazing feeling,” he said. “It’s been a great ride. I’ve met some amazing people here in Buffalo. I couldn’t have asked for any more.”
Ellis has a two-way deal for the upcoming season, and then a one-way contract for 2012-13. Last season, he served as Portland’s captain while shuttling between the minors and NHL, playing 52 AHL games and 12 with the Sabres. He could be ticketed for the AHL again, this time in Rochester, the Sabres’ new affiliate.
“If it’s not the right shift right away and I go to Rochester, that’s a pretty good deal as well,” Ellis said.
The 29-year-old has spent many summers fretting over his career. He re-signed in late August last year. The early contract is refreshing.
“To be able to take a deep breath now and be able to focus on what I need to do for the next two seasons, it’s a feeling that I haven’t been able to feel for the last little while of my career,” Ellis said.
Ellis’ tenure with the Sabres hasn’t been completely smooth. Early on, he cleared waivers and went to the minors again. But he carved out nearly two full seasons as an NHL regular before last year, which he acknowledged was an “emotional rollercoaster.”
“I was older, I had established myself on an NHL level and now it wasn’t just myself and my wife going through the changes and the ups and downs of a call-up,” Ellis said. “It was bringing my two boys with us through the process, which made it a little difficult at times.”
Clearly, though, the Sabres view Ellis as an asset, even if he’s the 13th or 14th forward. His value can’t be measured in goals or points. Counting one playoff appearance, he had zero in 15 games last season, yet the Sabres went 12-2-1 when he played.
Incredibly, since Ellis arrived, the Sabres are 76-39-16 with him (a .641 winning percentage) and 53-49-13 (.517) without him. Ellis has 10 goals, 25 points and is a minus-1 in that time.
Ellis’ tenacity is legendary. He’s arguably the most relentless Sabre in recent memory, never taking a shift off or a day in the NHL for granted. At times, his hard work has almost shamed teammates into better efforts. His presence and positive attitude rubs off on youngsters and veterans.
That supreme work ethic has always been Ellis’ greatest strength, helping him go from the ECHL to Detroit in four years.
“It’s what got me my first professional contract,” Ellis said. “It’s what got me drafted to the OHL. I don’t think those things change. I think when you look back, and you can ask any coach I played for from the first time I picked up a hockey stick, and the first word that comes to mind when they talk about myself was that I was a ‘hard worker.’ It’s something that I’m proud of and it’s something that’s a natural for me.
“When I lace up my skates, even in the summertime when I put on my runners, when it’s time to get down to business, I let the passion kind of take hold, and I just run with it,” he said.