Goalie Brian Elliott overcomes tough season to become an All-Star with Blues

Jan 28 2012 - 6:45pm

ST. LOUIS -- Big egos have small ears. No one will ever accuse Brian Elliott of having small ears.

"One of the things that you learn about 'Ells' is he's a really good listener," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "He's resurrected a career based on being able to look in the mirror and make adjustments."

The alterations aren't about character or drive. Elliott has spent his hockey-playing life as an afterthought, the odd man out. It was that way in college, where he came out of a backup shadow to lead the University of Wisconsin-Madison to a national championship.

It was like that in the NHL draft, when he was taken 291st by Ottawa, the second to last player chosen in 2003. He couldn't even finish first for finishing last. No, Elliott has never lacked for resilience.

"He's a great model for, 'stay with it, you never know when this is going to change,'" Hitchcock added. "It wasn't his work ethic. It wasn't his determination. It wasn't his conditioning. There were some things that had to change in his game."

Elliott ascended to a position of favor in Ottawa, a trusted goaltender who played 55 games and had 29 wins for the Senators in 2009-10. He carried a .909 save percentage that season, and carried a hockey-impassioned city's seal of approval. Some things sabotaged all that.

Things that turned Elliott's record into 13-19-8 the following season and got him traded to Colorado, where he won just two of 11 starts. Things that shrunk his save percentage to a frightful .891. Things that caused the press to bury him and left him jobless at season's end. Things were out of whack.

"I'm probably roughest on myself, more so than anybody else could be on me," Elliott, 26, said. "I sometimes have to look in the mirror and realize, 'You have to pick it up or you're not going to be in the league long.' The best advice I ever got was, 'It's tough to get there and even tougher to stay.'

"When you can't find a one-way job, you have to kind of go back to scratch, go back to the beginning from where you started."

Unable to find a guaranteed NHL contract, Elliott signed a two-way deal with the Blues. He would have to win an NHL job in training camp. He was, in fact, back at the beginning. But he wasn't alone. In St. Louis, he found a kindred spirit in goaltending tutor Corey Hirsch. Together, they identified the detrimental things that destroyed his game and worked to fix it.

"He's very coachable, very coachable," Hirsch said. "As a coach, that's what you look for in a player, someone who is going to take the information you give them and at least try to apply it and see what works for him. He has taken it and just run with it. It's been a pleasure to work with him."

As it turned out, the fix was fundamental. Elliott had strayed from his style of play and tried to embrace a more emphatic method, championed by others. It was a goaltending personality that felt foreign and uncontrolled. He had to become compact again.

"I tried to go back to what I used to do in college and when I first got in NHL," Elliott said. "That is, to stay on top of the crease and not be moving too much. A lot of coaches want you to move, get out and challenge and come back into the crease with speed.

"It didn't really fit my game and I didn't feel comfortable doing that. But sometimes you get caught up in what's going on around you and find yourself trying to play that way. With Hirschie, we have gone back to basics and what I used to do. He has the same philosophy as I and it's reinforced things for me. It's really worked well."

Well enough to make Elliott integral to this promising Blues start, well enough to send him back to Ottawa this weekend as an NHL All-Star. The Blues have had a number of first-half heroes. But in the context of Jaroslav Halak's struggling start, it's hard to imagine anything more important than Elliott's 15 wins, five shutouts, league-leading 1.69 goals-against average and league-pacing .938 save percentage.

All that from a guy who was within a veritable coin flip of starting the season in Peoria. If not for Halak's shaky beginning, the Blues probably would have gone with Ben Bishop's potential over Elliott's experience.

Elliott never fretted the depth-chart decision. He bonded with Hirsch, put on his overalls and worked on re-inventing his puck-stopping style, a philosophy Hirsch also espouses.

"He's not as aggressive," Hirsch said. "That's one of the first things we talked about. When I first saw him, I thought I noticed that's how he was playing. It's funny because different goalie coaches have different styles. Some goalies can work well with my system, or another system or whatever, and some goalies can't.

"Not everyone can play the (aggressive) blocking system. So I think Brian and myself, we just have the same thoughts on how goal should be played and that always helps. So he's not as aggressive and he's able to get everywhere. It's given him a better positional foundation."

For Elliott, Hirsch's camaraderie has been equally important to Goaltending 101 tips. Along with quarterbacks in football and pitchers in baseball, no one shoulders more responsibility or pressure than an NHL goalie. They need a miracle every start, and often they need a friend more than a technician.

"Hirschie and I work really well together because we kind of have the same personality," Elliott said. "He's a guy to relate to, and that's what a good goalie coach is. It's not always about hockey. With him, it might be telling stories, making you laugh and lightening the load a little bit. That's as valuable sometimes as anything else."

Elliott packed a new mask in his bags for Ottawa this weekend. It is decorated with stars, the NHL All-Star logo and his nickname, "Ells." He will have it autographed by his mid-winter classic teammates and cherish it as a keepsake. Before he left, he acquired some other autographs to treasure, signatures on a new two-year contract with the Blues.

He's no longer starting over in St. Louis, he's just getting started ... with his eyes and ears wide open.

"He's a perfect example for perseverance," Hitchcock said. "Man, he's done it beautifully. He was willing to look in the mirror and take that summer help he needed and kind of put his career right on the front path again."

It is the rare person who will listen to things he doesn't like to hear, or see things he doesn't like to watch. In the case of Brian Elliott, it is an All-Star person.

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