Tyler Ennis is a talented hockey player who is generously listed in the Sabres’ media guide at 5’9”, 160 pounds. His lack of size causes special problems that he must overcome to be effective; he is not going to out-muscle today’s average NHL defenseman who measures 6’2” and weighs in at 212 pounds.
Giving away about a half a foot in height (with the proportional difference in reach) and 50 pounds of body mass means that Ennis must be smart in his positioning when he doesn’t have the puck and he must be very strong on his skates when he does.
Lately he’s been struggling. Through his first 18 games this year, he has three goals and seven assists. Extrapolated over the full regular season schedule, this production pace marches out to just 13 goals and 31 assists for 44 points. The Sabres are counting on Ennis, a three-time 20-goal scorer, to do more.
When he is dynamic and challenges the defense, he is a borderline all-star and one of the best second-line centers in the game. When he isn’t going full-throttle and driving to the net, he tries to go wide resulting in being squeezed out by a much larger defenseman, landing on his backside.
Not coincidentally, this is the same problem our much less skilled and physically even shorter (but heavier) captain, Brian Gionta, faces every night, and it shows on the score sheet: Ennis is a +1 in the Sabres’ wins and a -9 in the losses. His shot total is on pace to be his highest as a professional and his giveaways are on track to increase over 100 percent.
Ennis can’t keep control of the puck while a much larger defender manhandles him into the boards.
Another statistic proves more deeply that Ennis is not playing his game. He’s on pace for about 40 percent more hits than the last two seasons. The diminutive center is not paid $2.75 million to run opponents into the boards.
To his credit, there is no evidence of a lack of effort and Ennis seems to be backchecking and forechecking as hard as he can. But clearly he’s squeezing the stick and feeling pressure to score. To his discredit, he was called for a five-minute boarding major just 5:34 into the game against the Blues for shoving defenseman Alex Pietrangelo from behind as both skated toward the boards.
What can he do to break out and turn it around? Drive to the net.
When Sabre fans were blessed with the magic of Pat LaFontaine and Alexander Mogilny, we were treated to nightly displays of courage. The secret of the magic was really no mystery at all; we’d witness Patty dip the inside shoulder, extend one arm and go hard to the net.
A moment later, LaFontaine, a defender and the goalie, would be in a tangled mess next to the net where the puck had just taken residency. Ennis is not LaFontaine, but he is a talented player with great puck-handling ability, and LaFontaine played at a similar stature; 5’ 10” and 175 pounds.
If Ennis plays his game, positions himself smartly when he is without the puck, and goes hard to the net when he does have it, his plus-minus should rapidly improve and his goal total should approach a career high.