During the New York Rangers game on Dec. 22, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Tyler Ennis took a Morgan Rielly shot to the skate and had to leave the game. A medical exam determined that the 29-year-old had broken his ankle. That injury kept Ennis out for nearly two months, and he only returned to the lineup against the Arizona Coyotes on Feb. 16.
After coming back, Ennis has contributed. On Feb. 23, in less than 10 minutes of playing time, he scored a goal in the team’s 6-3 comeback win against the Montreal Canadiens. On Feb. 25, playing just over seven minutes, he scored the game-winning goal against the Buffalo Sabres in a 5-3 victory.
Ennis, in limited playing time, is helping the Maple Leafs win. In fact, Ennis has reinvigorated what had recently been a moribund fourth line.
About the Maple Leafs’ win against the Sabres on Feb. 25, Sportsnet’s beat writer Luke Fox noted, “The Maple Leafs’ fourth line appeared to handle the day’s Par Lindholm trade news just fine, thank you, with both Gauthier (first multi-point night) and Ennis (breakaway snipe on backup Linus Ullmark) hopping in on the second-period goal party. Call-up Trevor Moore, expected to get a long look this time, added an assist for his fourth point in just eight NHL games.”
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The analytics also backed up the fourth line’s contribution, and Fox added, “Possession-wise, that trio dominated, allowing just a single shot against and posting a team-high 66.7 per cent Corsi rating.”
James Tanner of Fansided agreed, “I love both Ennis and Moore and think they should both get some extra ice time.”
Ennis’ History with the Maple Leafs
With no fanfare at all, on July 6, 2018, Ennis signed with the Maple Leafs. His contract was for $650,000, the NHL’s minimum. It was a low-risk signing of a veteran NHL player who, before this season with the Maple Leafs, had spent one season with the Minnesota Wild and eight with the Sabres.
When he broke into the NHL, Ennis was a promising young winger. However, a series of injuries eroded the high expectations people had for him. Although Ennis’ career has had ups and downs, he’s always played well.
It’s not like he can’t score. Three times, between 2010-11 and 2014-15, Ennis scored more than 20 goals per season. Now, in 529 games, he has 114 goals and 157 assists – more than one point every two games. In 37 games with the Leafs this season, he has nine goals and four assists. Coach Mike Babcock must see his value, as well, regularly giving Ennis time on the second power-play unit. That second unit power play of Patrick Marleau, William Nylander, Ennis, Kasperi Kapanen, and Jake Gardiner is capable.
What Does Ennis Bring to His New Team?
Ennis can play anywhere the team asks him to. Early in the season, he filled Nylander’s usual right wing spot on Auston Matthews’ line. These days, he’s schooling Gauthier and Moore on the fourth line.
It’s in this fourth-line role that Ennis can shine. He simply makes the line better. When he was out, the fourth line stagnated. It was good enough defensively, but generated almost nothing offensively. Lindholm was a decent penalty killer, but had only one goal. Gauthier has three goals, but was a digger who rarely scored a point.
With Ennis back from injury and Moore called up, a fourth line with an offensive punch only adds to the team’s potential. Add newly-acquired Nic Petan to the mix, and the fourth line might become surprisingly offensive. Petan has scored everywhere he’s played regularly.
Ennis’ position on the Maple Leafs’ fourth line allows him to show veteran leadership for the youthful Gauthier, Moore, and even 23-year-old Petan. With Lindholm gone and Ennis present, the Maple Leafs’ fourth line can morph from a grinder line to a line with offensive capability.
What’s Next for Ennis?
Ennis will likely be slotted into bottom-six minutes for the remainder of the season. However, that’s not a bad thing. Before he was hurt, Ennis played well wherever he was used. He’s a consummate depth forward.
He’s also a likable teammate. In a neat little YouTube “Leaf to Leaf” segment, where teammates Matthews and Ennis ask and answer each other’s goofy questions, Matthews revealed that he believes Ennis and Nazem Kadri are the easiest people on the team to get along with. Watching Ennis being interviewed, he shows himself able to speak thoughtfully and directly about issues. He seems like a classy kid.
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Still under 30 years of age, he hasn’t yet passed his best playing days. He’s still fast. He’s still skilled. And, he’s still hungry to play. In an interview after the game, Ennis told the media that he’s proud to be a Maple Leaf. Although he wishes his former Sabres success, he’s happy to be in Toronto.
And the Maple Leafs are happy to have him. He’s been a steal of a deal. In fact, as the Maple Leafs stare their looming salary crunch in the face, contracts like Ennis’ are exactly what the team needs to balance the extremely high salaries it has paid to its elite players.