by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com
Lindsay Kramer, the AHL correspondent for NHL.com, profiles an up-and-coming player each Monday during the season, and his AHL notebook appears each Thursday on NHL.com.
Months before Wall Street made most stocks as desirable as broken hockey sticks, Binghamton Senators goalie Brian Elliott invested in something he was certain would only increase in value — himself.
He rented large chunks of ice time in Madison, Wis., where he was a former star for the University of Wisconsin Badgers. He hired a personal goalie tutor, ex-Wisconsin star Mike Valley, for the first time in his career.
Elliott doesn’t want to reveal his precise financial outlay, but he said it was in the thousands of dollars.
"I think I got a pretty good deal on it. It was a good setup," Elliott said of the ice rink, which he rented with a handful of other players. "They gave us a dressing room there. You have to invest in yourself if you want to get better."
And what about the dividends? Well, those won’t be known for sure for a season or two, when Elliott, 23, makes a serious run at a full-time NHL job.
But how about these for encouraging early returns: a 2.31 goals-against, a .926 save percentage and an AHL-leading 18 wins. Oh yeah, and the AHL goalie of the month award for December and status as the starter for the Canadian team in the league’s upcoming all-star game as additional blue-chip baubles.
"When you are in the zone, everything slows down a bit," Elliott said. "You are anticipating plays better. Your eyes track the puck better. You rely on your anticipation. That’s what I’ve been learning, trying to stay in that ideal performance state."
Elliott came to the Senators with a solid foundation as something of a self-made goalie. The native of Newmarket, Ont., was never drafted by an OHL team. The NHL liked him better, but just barely. Ottawa took him 291st in the 2003 draft, the second-to-last player grabbed in the ninth and final round.
Three years later, he helped carry the Badgers to the NCAA title and picked up honors and records like a rookie gathers pucks after practice.
"I never let it get me down at all," Elliott said of his low regard among NHL teams. "You’re drafted. That’s more than 98 percent of the people who play hockey can say. I knew I would have four years (at Wisconsin) where I could learn and grow as a player. You never know what you’re going to develop into."
Elliott worked his way to a co-starting job with Jeff Glass as a Binghamton rookie last season. But Elliott’s bottom line — 18-19-1, 2.81, .915 — hardly suggested stopper status.
"Last year, it went up and down, even from practice to practice," he said. "That’s what I learned. No matter what happens, you have to shrug it off. How you build your confidence is not losing it. Everybody is in the AHL for a reason. Even if you have a bad game, you have to go back to your roots and remember you are there for a reason."
But staying there — or going higher — requires a different level of commitment. Elliott had trained every off-season, of course, but his extended stay in Madison and reservation of large amounts of ice time and training help were firsts.
He and Valley knew each other a bit, though their collaboration last summer was their first extensive one-on-one effort. Elliott called Valley, now the goalie coach for Wisconsin and for the Milwaukee Admirals, and asked what it would take to get his help.
"I wanted someone to push me all summer long. He said the only way I’m going to do this (train him) is if you play as hard as you can and your goal is to play in the NHL. He said don’t sell yourself short," Elliott said. "You can’t just go to a local gym and do some push-ups. It (improving) is not something you can take lightly."
Elliott clearly hasn’t. His December effort was off the charts — 7-2, 1.79 GAA, .943 save percentage and one shutout. He allowed two goals or fewer in nine of his 11 appearances, and faced at least 32 shots in six of his nine complete games. Goalie of the month honor aside, Elliott’s biggest reward for that streak was a promotion to Ottawa on Jan. 9.
Valley insisted that Elliott work like a player who was headed to the top, and the pupil justified the standard of his teacher.
"Absolutely. Absolutely," Valley said when asked if he foresaw Elliott coming so far so fast. "Brian is a student of the game. I’m lucky to have a student like him. He lives every day in the moment, which is tough for younger guys to do. It’s all about today."
Since Elliott stands 6-foot-3, 198 pounds, it’s also all about him turning into Example A of a big goalie who plays that way. Elliott’s been a busy man — his 881 shots faced are second in the AHL — but most of those bids have been futile with the way he’s swallowing up space in the net.
"That’s where all the technique comes in, trying to make yourself as big as possible and make the holes as small as possible," he said. "I worked a lot on keeping my elbows in, not allowing the puck to go through me. When you work on keeping yourself tighter, you make yourself bigger."
There’s so much more to work on, naturally, a lot more edges to smooth out in off-season training sessions to come. Valley and Elliott have already started plotting their sessions for next summer.
The types of foundations that last the longest usually come with a big tab. It’s one that Elliott will gladly keep paying.
"I set my sights high. I think it paid off this year," Elliott said. "Once you have success with one thing, you kind of keep doing it. You take care of the small details, and the big things will take care of themselves."