Blues' Elliott must deliver in playoffs

ST. LOUIS -- On the day NHL free agency begins, some players like to follow along by tracking the news on television and online. Other guys avoid it all, and hole up at home until a decision is made.

The highest-profile guys can sit at the office of their agent while NHL general managers visit to make their pitch.

On July 1, 2011, unrestricted free agent goalie Brian Elliott was on a golf course. It was his bachelor party.

The goaltending market in free agency can be a bit like musical chairs: When the spots are filled and the players signed, there's always that one guy left standing without a deal.

Coming off a rough season split between two bad teams in Ottawa and Colorado, Elliott had no intentions of being left without a chair.

While he golfed, a few teams called to gauge his interest. Then he received a call somewhere around the third or fourth hole at Wisconsin's scenic golf course, The Legend at Bergamont, from his agent Kurt Overhardt. This wasn't a decision that could wait for the turn.

"It was pretty quick, like 'You've got to make a decision,' " Elliott told ESPN The Magazine.

Elliott thought a moment.

"What would you do?" Elliott said to his agent.
 "I would pick St. Louis," Overhardt answered.

And that was that.

"I forgot about it the rest of the day," Elliott said. "There's nothing more you can do than have fun and get ready for the wedding."

The decision this time around might not be in his control. After signing that two-way deal, Elliott edged Ben Bishop for the job behind Jaroslav Halak, went on to lead the league in save percentage and goals-against average, and earned a two-year extension.

After this season, those two years are up.

The rush that was there to get a deal done in 2011 is gone. Blues GM Doug Armstrong, who is faced with two starting goalies playing in their contract year, is content to ride this out to the end. He's willing to reward a goalie with a new deal, but it's going to be somebody who has postseason success.

"We're in the Show-Me State," Armstrong told ESPN The Magazine. "We want to have a good playoffs."

Elliott has already won one battle with a talented goalie in forcing the Blues to move Bishop in a 2012 trade. Armstrong was posed with the question as to whether he regretted trading Bishop, who has carried the Lightning to surprising success this season with a 23-5-4 record and .938 save percentage.

There is no regret.

He's a general manager who would rather pay a player for results than potential. Plus, Armstrong pointed out, Elliott's production since Bishop joined the Lightning in the spring is every bit as impressive. Since April, Elliott is 24-4-2 with a .934 save percentage. Bishop is 26-9-5 with a .933 save percentage. Both pretty darn good.

"I really like Ben as a person and I think he's going to be a good pro," Armstrong said. "You play the cards you're dealt with at the time, and at that time we went on to win the Jennings Trophy with the two goalies that we had. I would make the decision based on the information we had at that time, 100 percent of the time."

Elliott's current performance has validated the decision, but it hasn't guaranteed playing time.

Elliott was nearly perfect in December, going 6-0-1 with a .930 save percentage. He won his first three games in January but, after dropping a 2-1 game to the Canucks, he sat for two games while coach Ken Hitchcock worked Halak back into the lineup this week.

Sweat still pouring from an extended morning skate workout as the backup on Tuesday morning, Elliott was asked if sitting despite his strong play ticked him off.

"No, no," he said immediately. "You don't really know what the coaches are thinking, but Jaro was sick for a bit, I got a chance to step in for a few games back-to-back and felt good. We were winning so it's just about getting that opportunity and taking advantage of it as much as you can. ... Sometimes it's tough, but it makes you hungry to get back in here."

Elliott has used that hunger to try to earn the trust of the Blues' organization as decisions are being formed on what to do for the playoffs and long-term in goal. It's fair to wonder, especially after his struggles in Colorado and Ottawa, how much of Elliott's success is his talent and work ethic versus how much of it is being a goalie on a defense-minded contender.

"I've asked the same question," said one Western Conference coach. "I like Brian Elliott. You've got to love the work ethic. That's a big part of him. You know you'll get that part."

Elliott was at the top of a wish list compiled by Blues goalie coach Corey Hirsch when the Blues were shopping for a veteran who might be willing to take a two-way deal in 2011. Armstrong credits Hirsch's preparation for landing Elliott, and Hitchcock said Elliott's work ethic under Hirsch's instruction is the reason for his success.

One of the things Elliott focused on after joining the Blues was to relax his arms and have more movement and fluidity in his game. He focused on catching more pucks -- whether it was in the pads, in his stomach or up high. It allowed him to get a better feel and control the game more effectively.

Hitchcock said he also has seen a goalie who has developed more positional patience in his game, trusting his size more often. To Elliott, it all ties together.

"When you're wanting that shot so bad, that's when you can be seen as too aggressive because you want to make that save, then you create holes," Elliott said. "If you're more fluid, you're more patient, you let that puck come to you and you can watch it, see every puck into your body."

It has continued an evolution for Elliott that began the moment he started playing professionally. He led Wisconsin to a national championship in 2006 but quickly realized that his style there, where he never really was square to the shooter, gave pros too much net at which to shoot. He basically had to change everything he had been doing for four years.

"I didn't T-Push in college," he said, explaining a skating motion used laterally to get across the net. "I was basically learning how to T-Push in my first NHL camp. If you told anybody else that, they would laugh. I did get laughed at, but I laughed with them."

At 28, it's all coming together. The combination of work ethic, talent, technique and a strong team in front of him has Elliott posting numbers that are now in the Blues' record books. And yet, there's still doubt whether he'll start in the playoffs (despite a .919 save percentage against the Kings in the spring). Or even the next game.

Ryan Miller trade speculation also won't quit, even though Armstrong is quick to point out that he doesn't believe goaltending is what led to a first-round exit last season. His biggest issue was the lack of goal-scoring, a problem the Blues appear to have addressed.

Every start is another opportunity for Elliott to build a stronger case. Really, it's all he can do.

"I've had the best three years of my career here so far. The most fun," Elliott said. "I probably felt more a part of the team [here] than anywhere else I've been since college. It's a good dynamic we have with the guys. I haven't felt that since our national championship-winning team in Wisconsin. It's a fun feeling to have. It's also a little nerve-racking because you don't want to give that feeling up."