When asked back in February, Calgary Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan used the word leadership multiple times when discussing then-Flames defenseman Deryk Engelland.
“He gives a real calm leadership in that locker room,” noted Gulutzan, who also coached Engelland with the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL. “He gives us obviously an edge on the ice. He’s a guy that everybody knows is a real tough player, but he’s a character, he’s a leader … He’s played in all situations. We’ve played him up, we’ve played him down in the lineup. He’s playing significant minutes. He’s been fantastic for us.”
The past of Las Vegas hockey meets the present.
— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) June 22, 2017
This past June, the Flames lost the veteran leader when he was picked up in the NHL Expansion Draft by the Vegas Golden Knights. But the Flames loss is the Golden Knights gain—and that gain should be their first-ever captain.
In the Beginning
Engelland broke into the NHL in 2009 with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The 6-foot-2 defenseman, who established himself as a feared enforcer in the minors, had three fights in a nine-game stint in his first year. And like countless others in his line of work, his foray into the enforcer role was not a planned route.
“Obviously, I liked that part of the game,” recalled Engelland. “Growing up it was ‘Rock ’em, Sock ’em Hockey’ when I was growing up and every Christmas you pop it in and watch … It’s kind of funny how everything turns out and that’s part of my job now.
“[Fighting] kind of started in juniors” he added. “I played Jr. B when I was 16. I played a bit and then ended up getting into a fight, and did pretty well, and it kinda just took off from there. I only finished that year with like four [fights], but then I got to juniors and fought a couple of times in the first four or five months of the season, and then fought a whole bunch in the last 15 games. I ended up getting drafted and figured out that was my role.”
Not Your Typical Enforcer
Bob Probert. Joey Kocur. Brian McGrattan. Colton Orr. These enforcers rank among the best who have ever played the game. But what sets Engelland apart is unlike his counterparts who see limited ice and play on the fourth line, he is a defenseman who plays quality minutes every game.
As Gulutzan mentioned, “the biggest thing about [Engelland] is that he can play, and he can play significant minutes for you … He’s been an excellent penalty killer for us and he has the added tool in the toolbox that, hey he can take care of business out on the ice. He’s a real tough character and he’s a real leader.”
His leadership with his fists and defensive prowess could propel him into the captaincy but add in his strong work ethic and it could set a strong tone in Vegas.
“[I] just try to keep my game sharp, work on little things,” said Engelland, who was a combined plus-minus of plus-9 in his last two seasons in Calgary. “When I was in the minors I worked on skating a lot. That was a big part of my game to make it to this level. The last few years, try to lean out a little bit … [I] made some changes in training and stuff like that to try and get faster. I used to play heavier. Now I try to stay a little lighter to have that advantage against the bigger guys so the biggest thing I think is the skating. As soon as you slow down too much it’s probably going to be your exit out of the league.”
More Than a Fighter
While Engelland will be the first to tell you he’s not known as an enforcer anymore, his leadership in defending his teammates was clear last season. According to hockeyfights.com, in 81 games with the Flames, he dropped the gloves nine times—his highest number since his first full season with the Penguins in 2010-11.
“No [regrets on being an enforcer],” said Engelland. “It was how I got here. A big part of how I got here—sticking up for my teammates, being a good guy on the ice … Most of the time it’s not [something I do], but it’s going to be there till I’m done.”
But his nine fights were part of 35 total for the Flames, as the specialized enforcer role is disappearing.
Engelland, who once had a total of 21 fights in a season in juniors with Moose Jaw, added, “I definitely think [the role is] needed. I just think there are more guys that play bigger roles and are tough and willing to fight. I think now it’s not as much just strictly just an enforcer now. Everyone’s playing the game and you look at guys like [the Oilers Milan] Lucic who plays a big role on his team, but he’s tough. It’s going on to more that. I think most of those guys if they can stay sharp defensively, they’re good in their own zone they can keep in the game.”
A captain in the NHL plays a crucial role as they set the tone for the team not only on the ice but in the locker room. They don’t need to be the team’s top scorer. Some like Mark Messier can strap an entire team on his back and carry them to victory. Others, like Joe Sakic, show leadership with their skill and prowess on the ice, or are the fiercest competitors in the game, like Scott Stevens.
Engelland’s resume doesn’t include Stanley Cups or NHL awards. But his level of competing, his willingness to defend his teammates and his solid work on the blue line showcases his ability to serve as a quality leader. Add in his proven ability to adapt his game, and his understanding of how the game has shifted over his seven-plus seasons in the NHL shows he can help mold the future Golden Knights.
Plus, it doesn’t hurt that the 35-year-old Engelland, whose career has come full circle now since starting it for the Wranglers, will surely be a fan favorite in Las Vegas—his offseason home for the last 14 years.
Formerly ESPN, SNY, and SNY.tv.
4-time Emmy winner, 2-time NY Emmy nominee for short-form writing.