With the NHL trade deadline approaching, the Buffalo Sabres must decide what players fit in their future plans among a group of players who have either peaked or whose NHL career is too short to properly evaluate. Given the new regime change, it would be prudent to remain patient with a few young players who could become key cogs in a future resurgence. Last week, we discussed why the Sabres should keep Tyler Myers. In that same vein, we’re going to discuss another player who deserves another look as a Sabre. Tyler Ennis has had his struggles — much like Myers — but it would be a shame for an offensively starved organization to further deplete itself of a potential top six forward. Especially one whose unique skill set has made him a great fit on the team to this point.
Like many of his peers in Buffalo, evaluation of Tyler Ennis remains difficult because of the organizational circumstances. The team has been among the worst in the league for the last two years primarily because of a lack of top end offense. That said, Ennis has been in the system long enough for us to know that he has a unique offensive skill set that’s been hampered by the inconsistencies of youth. Instead of setting a number and not being happy that Ennis hasn’t scored X points or played X minutes, we have to compare Ennis with those mired in the same situation as him to see why he is the perfect candidate for an extension after he enters RFA status this July.
Tyler Ennis ranks second on the Buffalo Sabres in points this season as of the Olympic break. Granted, it’s only 29 points in 57 games, but everyone on this team is looking at a career low in points. Ennis sits one point behind fellow center Cody Hodgson for the team lead. Ennis has compiled 152 points in 244 career regular season games and 8 points in 13 playoff games. That averages out to about 51 points per 82 games played in the regular season and a better rate with a very limited sample from the playoffs. It is nice to see that Ennis was able to respond at such a young point in his career with some playoff success.
If you buy into the theory that the Sabres have gotten worse each year since the famed Chris Drury/Daniel Briere defections, save for that anomaly of a 2010 division banner year, then it’s worth noting that Tyler Ennis had 20 goals in his first full season as an NHLer and improved on that point pace thereafter even up to last year, when the wheels were already falling off for good on the Darcy Regier Era. Since 2012, Tyler Ennis has played most of his games on an inferior team with inferior line mates. Given that he was nearly a 50 point player in his rookie year with what was never a very imposing team to begin with, it would be reasonable to expect that Ennis could produce 60-70 points or more on a faster, more talented top nine unit. Toss in the potential for a clutch gene to be shown in his next playoff appearance down the road and you have to like the possibilities with Ennis compared to either losing him to free agency or trading him for more unknown entities.
Point production is one thing, but it’s not everything. Easy (and fair) criticisms of Ennis include weak defensive and possession play. There’s also the fact that he plays his best hockey at center, but he can’t win a faceoff to save his life. His defense and possession play are improving, as evidenced by Ennis standing 2nd among regular Buffalo forwards in his Corsi rating. The faceoff win percentage still hovers at 40%, which is pretty rough for a center. While those aspects of his game hamper him, the Sabres are a wasteland of offensive talent and Ennis brings a skill set unmatched within the organization. In trading Ennis, you are likely just creating another hole on the team. Until the Sabres know what they have in some of their younger prospects, they would be wise to offer an extension to a player who brings rare offensive flair to a lacking squad.
Tyler Ennis may have topped his career average in goals in his rookie year. He scored twenty goals, which seems an appropriate guess for his max range. It’s not goal scoring for which you notice Tyler Ennis. It’s the way he brings the puck in the zone and creates quality chances. Instead of facing up a defenseman and throwing the puck in the corner for — at best — a fifty percent chance that a linemate will scrap for the puck, Ennis can shift in and teeter the puck along the blue line or he can make a quick pass to a linemate and dart to open ice to get the puck back. Either way, zone entry is more likely to end in quality possession than another clear out when Tyler Ennis is leading the rush than any other current Sabre. Most of Buffalo’s lines can only play the dump and chase game, but the puck handling and shiftiness of Tyler Ennis makes him look like a basketball point guard on the ice. He puts defenders on their heels and uses that momentum to either make a pass or make a play. That, more than any other area, is where Ennis excels and it’s why he’s so valuable at center. He is a natural distributor not just for shots, but for cycling the puck and creating quality possession that either leads to scoring chances or draws penalties.
Teams can’t solely play a dump and chase game in the NHL anymore. The defenseman are too quick and too good at moving the back along the boards and back out of the zone to rely solely on dump and chase as the first way to seek quality possession. Depending on the opposition’s forecheck and neutral zone defense, the best players create quality possession by carrying the puck in the zone. Tyler Ennis probably doesn’t top out as a first line player, but he could be a solid second line center or winger who also gets time on the power play because of the unique talents he brings to Buffalo.
Obviously the Sabres will look to build depth in all areas of their roster and as they do that, certain talents (like those of Ennis) could then become more expendable. As it is, Tyler Ennis is one of the team’s two best young point producing forwards at the NHL level whose skill complements that of fellow youngster Hodgson. You’re going to have find six more guys who are better than Tyler Ennis before you can think about moving him. Given that the Sabres are only getting younger, it stands to reason that the best move to make with Ennis and his modest numbers is to offer him one last bridge contract – 2 or 3 years length – worth no more than $4-$4.5M per year. Bear in mind that Cody Hodgson makes $4.5M on this team, while he’s played 60 fewer NHL games than Ennis with similar points per game totals. The Sabres will have plenty of cap space, so paying Ennis close to that shouldn’t be a problem. It will also give the team a chance to further evaluate where Ennis can go as stability sets in for the Buffalo Sabres.