When Dan Ellis was preparing to hit the free agent market in early July he knew where he wanted to sign. At the top of his list was the Dallas Stars, the team that gave him his start in pro hockey.
“It was the No. 1 place. As soon as I became a free agent I looked around the league at places that might have possible openings, and this was by far the No. 1 place I wanted to come back to,” Ellis said. “Once you’ve been the Dallas organization, and you go around to other places, it’s hard to reach that level of quality and that level of professionalism. To come back, it was just a really easy choice. I was just glad that they chose me to come back.”
The Stars drafted Ellis in the second round of the 2000 NHL Draft. He played four seasons in the Stars organization, all of it in the minor leagues except for a 4-3 victory over the Los Angeles Kings in his NHL debut on February 18, 2004. He left as a free agent in 2007 and went on to play 183 more NHL games for Nashville, Tampa Bay, Anaheim and Carolina.
A lot has changed with the Stars since Ellis left, but there are still some familiar faces and that makes coming back that much easier.
Trevor Daley and Stephane Robidas are still around from Ellis’ time with the Stars. Les Jackson and Scott White are still in the front office. Steve Sumner and Dennis Soetaert are still handling the team’s equipment. Associate athletic trainer Craig Lowry was with Stars’ AHL affiliates in Utah and Iowa when Ellis played there. And Ellis has played with Vernon Fiddler and Rich Peverley in Nashville.
“That really makes it pretty simple to come back,” said Ellis, who arrived in town this week and has started skating with his new teammates in Frisco. “You’re comfortable, you know people and you’re not spending a lot of time feeling your way around the locker room. Coming into an environment like that it makes it a little easier to transition back.”
The Stars signed Ellis to a two-year, $1.8 million contract in July. The Stars brought him in to be a solid veteran backup to Stars No. 1 goaltender Kari Lehtonen.
“He’s a mature guy that I worked with a little bit when I was in the Nashville organization,” said Stars goaltending coach Mike Valley. “I know Danny really well. He’s the type of guy that really understands his role and knows at the same time that his job is to come in and push Kari. He has that level of professionalism. He’s been a No. 1 guy, he’s been a No. 2. We’re confident in him.”
Ellis, who has posted a 78-65-17 record, 2.73 goals against average and .908 save percentage in the NHL, has worn many hats during his career. He believes that will prepare him for anything that might come his way while he is with the Stars.
“I am comfortable everywhere, even going back to the AHL last year during the lockout, playing as a backup, as a 1A or a 1B or playing as a starter,” Ellis said. “I’ve had the opportunity to do them all and I am comfortable anywhere. You become kind of a utility man that they can play in any situation. It’s something you take pride in. You want to be the best in whatever situation they do put you in, and you just kind of wait to see what the team’s direction is.”
When Ellis left the organization in 2007, the Stars were a team that was still making the playoffs every season. Now, they are a team that is trying to end a five-year postseason drought. Ellis likes what the Stars have done under owner Tom Gaglardi and GM Jim Nill, and believes the team is headed in the right direction.
“I think it is fantastic,” Ellis said. “When I was last here, which was six or seven years ago, the team was at that peak level. It was a very stable organization and it’s gone through some difficulties over the past few years that I wasn’t able to experience with the team, but seeing the changes they’ve made with the roster and management and ownership, I think they’ve gotten back to that level where they can be a top tier team in the league, a top market. I think it’s a big step they’ve taken, and they are on the right path now.”