THE summer slipped by so fast that Keaton Ellerby can't believe it's almost time to start skating already, to start getting the legs ready to play hockey.
Well, at least now he knows he's got a spot waiting for him at NHL training camp in Winnipeg.
On Thursday, the Jets announced they had re-upped Ellerby for the upcoming season, inking the defenceman to a two-way, one-year contract for $700,000.
"It's just nice to get something done, and have the opportunity to move on and get ready," Ellerby said over the phone from his home in Kelowna, B.C.
See, it wasn't always so clear that Ellerby would get a chance to earn a spot with the club again. The Jets first snagged the 6-4 defender off the waiver wire from the Los Angeles Kings last November. He suited up in 51 games, taking light minutes -- averaging just under 14 per game -- and mostly at even strength. He potted two goals, picked up four assists and only ended up in the sin bin once, which was a plus.
When the season was over, Ellerby was set to become a restricted free agent on July 1. But the Jets opted not to extend him a qualifying offer, and instead set him loose to the free market. So he went back to Kelowna, where he trains alongside Maple Leafs defenceman Cody Franson and Edmonton Oilers blueliner Justin Schultz, and started looking for a deal to work out.
Isn't there a song about that? Oh yeah -- the waiting is the hardest part. "It's a business, you roll with the punches, there's ups and downs," Ellerby said of that stretch of time. "You just gotta battle through it, and get better. There's no hard feelings, it's not personal or anything."
Still, as the days passed, Ellerby thought there was a chance that he could end up back with the Jets. "Just because they don't qualify you, it doesn't mean they don't want you," he said. "I was always open-minded to the possibility of becoming a Winnipeg Jet again. I'm very excited to go back there... It's excitement, and nothing more, nothing less."
What has Ellerby so excited, then? He rattles off a list. There's getting to play alongside the Jets' youthful first-rounders Jacob Trouba and Mark Scheifele: both "smart young kids" that Ellerby bets could be all-stars someday. "They know what it's going to take, and want to be the best," he said. "For both of them, I think they could be the best at their position at one point in their career."
There's also the chance to put in a full season under Jets head coach Paul Maurice, and another year to work on improving his own consistency: at 25, the former 10th-overall pick (2007, Florida Panthers) is still young, and could have room to grow. And though there hasn't been much turnover on the Jets roster this offseason, Ellerby thinks the whole squad could take a step forward, too.
"I think we showed what we can do in that stretch when Paul first came in," he said. "We proved that we were a playoff contender at least... but we had some bad luck with injuries, some internal stuff that probably wasn't needed at the end of the year. I think a full season, starting with Paul at the reins and in control of the group -- we obviously have seen that he's a guy who's going to be in charge, and knows what he wants."
Do note: Ellerby landed in Winnipeg during one of the most brutal winters in history. So, is he sure he's ready to come back for Round 2?
"I don't even want to think about that yet," he laughed. "I grew up in Calgary, so I know what winter's about, but... I'll just make sure I find a place with a heated garage. And a fireplace. And maybe a hot tub."