Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
At 5'9 169 lbs., Sabres center Tyler Ennis has his work cut out for him as the team's projected #1 center this season.
For Ennis, though, going against the top defenders on a nightly basis may be easier than the changes he and the team went through over the past few seasons.
His introduction to the NHL was with head coach Lindy Ruff for a 10-game stint at the end of the 2009-10 season. Ennis chimed in with three goals and nine points in those games as the Sabres made the playoffs. He had a goal and three assists in a six-game playoff loss to the Boston Bruins that year.
It was a solid NHL start for Ennis who was also named the 2009-10 AHL Rookie of the Year.
After starting out the 2010-11 season on the wing with Derek Roy and Drew Stafford, Ennis would eventually find himself placed throughout the lineup including a good amount of time with Rob Neidermayer and Mike Grier on a checking line.
He still finished with 20 goals and 29 assists in 82 games his rookie year even while bouncing around the lineup. The Sabres would make it into the playoffs and Ennis had another solid performance with two goals and two assists including a game-winner in OT at Philadelphia.
But things started to get a little rocky afterwards.
Ennis suffered an ankle injury early in the 2011-12 season that limited him to 48 games.
He would overcome that with a 15-goal season and a binge that would end up catapulting rookie LW Marcus Foligno into Cam Neely status for a brief stint.
Ennis was moved back to center in March that season as Ruff came to the conclusion that his "greazzy" forward could use his shiftiness more to his advantage in the middle of the ice. On his wings were power forwards Foligno and Stafford.
That line almost single-handedly got the team into the playoffs during the stretch-run.
Through the month of March, Ennis and Stafford lead the team with eight goals each. Ennis had 19 points and Stafford, 18, one-two on the team for the month.
Foligno had six goals and 11 points, finishing second on the team in both of those catagories in March.
It was downhill from there.
The lockout hit and took out the 2012 portion of the season. The Ennis-line could not get untracked and was dispersed. Ruff was fired and Ron Rolston replaced him.
Rolston was in way over his head and clung to X's and O's. He was fired in November, 2013 and the entire team had to unlearn everything he taught. Ennis had 2 goals and 4 assists in 20 games under Rolston to start the season.
Enter Ted Nolan.
Nolan came in and threw those X's and O's into the corner for the rest of the year. The edict was just to play hockey.
“That’s the biggest thing. I don’t have to think,” said Ennis back in February. “I’m a little more instinctive. When I start thinking about Xs and Os, that’s when I start to stop moving my feet and stop making plays. I need to play my game and want the puck and make plays with the puck.”
“To … say, ‘You have to be at this place’ is limiting his ability,” Nolan said. “We kind of took the reins off and said, ‘You just have to make sure you’re aware defensively.’”
That simplistic approach has allowed Ennis to be around the puck more, which resulted in him finding his stride. In 40 games played during the 2014 calendar year he had 13goals 15 assists or roughly a 26 goal, 55 point pace over a full season.
It was enough to place Ennis firmly in the Sabres longer-term plans as he signed a 5yr./$23M contract on July 17.
Sabres GM Tim Murray opted for the long-term deal instead of a one-year qualifying offer for the restricted free agent. It was a process where "both sides were on the same page."
The 24 yr. old veteran of 280 regular season and playoff games is slated to be the #1 center on the team heading into the season. Dependent upon what happens in the next couple of years, though, he could find himself anywhere in the top-six.
“Is he a center? Is he a winger?” Murray said at the time of Ennis' signing. “We talked about that with his agent and where he fits. He fits somewhere on this team. I have to look down the road and when I feel we’re going to be a competitive team. Is he the No. 1 center on that team? He may not be. He may be this year and next year he may be a No. 2 left winger."
I don't think it really matters to him.
In looking back at the crap he's been through, and the relative consistency with which he's played, there's no reason to believe that he'll fall below any of his career averages in his role as the team's top center. Especially with the increased ice-time, and better quality wingers he'll be playing with.
After that, who knows.
I get the feeling that all he wants to do is play hockey in the moment and let the chips fall where they may.