COLUMBUS, Ohio – Keaton Ellerby was a little upset when sent back to the minors in February, only he understood why the Panthers made the move.
Ellerby, who has spent most of this season up with the big club, had lost his confidence and that was showing in his play. In the eight games leading up to his demotion to Florida's AHL affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., Ellerby had a minus-rating in each game. Through those eight games, Ellerby was minus-10.
“It was a little tough being told I had to go back, but now, I think it was the best thing for me,'' Ellerby said. “My play had slipped, I had lost confidence in my game. That happens to everyone sometime in their career. But going back helped me get that confidence back and I think I came back better. I know I have to play hard every minute that I'm here.''
Ellerby's recent trip to the minors didn't, as expected, last long. The Panthers traded away defensemen Bryan McCabe, Bryan Allen and Dennis Wideman and needed Ellerby back. He says he got over being sent back to the minors as quickly as he went, saying he came back with a different attitude and both coach Pete DeBoer and assistant Gord Murphy say they have noticed a difference.
Ellerby missed two games while on his most recent assignment to Rochester. Since coming back, the 22-year-old has been rated even or plus in eight games – including Sunday's 2-1 shootout loss to the Penguins -- and has graded out at a minus-3 in a total of 14 games.
“This is a tough league and he's had to earn his spot,'' Murphy said. “One of the hardest things for young players, especially defensemen, is that consistency. Not just game to game, but shift to shift. That's part of the process. He went down, playing big, key minutes and he got his confidence back. He's good when he's playing aggressively. That's him at his best and we're seeing that again.''
The Panthers have high hopes for the future of not only Ellerby but his defensive partner Dmitry Kulikov as well. The two youngsters – both former first round draft picks – have shown a cohesiveness together with Ellerby saying “we hope to play together and play well together for a long, long time.'' When Ellerby was struggling at his most, Kulikov was out of the lineup with an ankle injury.
At this time last year, Ellerby had been called up from Rochester but found playing time to be at a premium. DeBoer, in one game, gave him just two shifts. Ellerby is now finding himself playing close to 20 minutes per night.
“Keaton was brought along at the right pace,'' DeBoer said. “I remember being asked about him playing three, four minutes last year. You guys asked 'why can't he play.' Well, he wasn't ready yet. It took multiple trips back and forth to the minors. Now he's ready and you're seeing the results of developing a young defenseman the right way. He's done things the right way and has to keep building on it.''
Because of the February changes – Florida traded McCabe, Wideman and Allen within a three-day span and also brought in Alexander Sulzer – the Panthers defense looks much different. For young players like Ellerby and Kulikov, not to mention Jason Garrison and Joe Callahan, this is an good opportunity to play big minutes and in different opportunities against NHL competition.
“I think they're doing a very good job,'' DeBoer said. “Look at the games we've played and we're not giving up 40 or 50 shots a night. We're playing in some tough buildings on the road and they are getting the job defensively. It would be nice to get them some more support – and their goaltender as well – with some more goals, but these guys have been thrown into the fire at a tough time of year. Teams are playing desperate hockey and they're holding their own.''
The Buffalo Sabres announced Sunday that defenseman Jordan Leopold would miss the rest of the regular season after breaking a bone in his hand against the Panthers on Friday night. Leopold signed a one-year deal with Florida not long after his rights were traded to the Panthers for Jay Bouwmeester in 2009. Florida traded him to the Penguins for a second-round pick at last season's trade deadline.
Leopold, who scored a goal in Buffalo's 4-2 win despite the injury, got hurt when he chased down Ryan Carter on a shorthanded scoring chance.
The Sabres hope to have Leopold back for the playoffs. He has been replaced in the lineup by, coincidentally, former Florida defenseman Steve Montador.
TUESDAY: PANTHERS AT BLUE JACKETS
When, Where: 7 p.m.; Nationwide Arena, Columbus, Ohio
TV/Radio: FSN; WQAM 560
The series: Columbus leads 6-4-0
The game: This is Florida's last game against a Western Conference opponent, with the Panthers going 7-9-1 against the west so far. Columbus' Antoine Vermette tied the score against Florida with 53 seconds left in the third before R.J. Umberger won beat the Panthers 3-2 by scoring with 54 seconds left in overtime on Jan. 19 in Sunrise. Scott Clemmensen is expected to start in place of Tomas Vokoun after he left Sunday's game with tightness in his back. Steve Mason, who won against Florida in January, will start for the Blue Jackets. Columbus has lost six of seven and four straight.