OTTAWA – Tyler Ennis knows what you’re thinking about his attempt to resurrect a career that’s veered dramatically off course these last few years.
“I think a lot of people have short-term memory in hockey,” he said during a candid interview with Sportsnet at Toronto Maple Leafs training camp.
They may have forgotten Ennis once won a world junior championship on the very same ice surface where he made his exhibition debut with the Leafs on Wednesday night. They may have forgotten his three 20-goal seasons in Buffalo or the shifty edgework that routinely saw him turn NHL defenders inside-out.
They may have forgotten he’s still just 28, and simply not realized how motivated he is to work for a better version of himself again.
“With me, it can be silly because I think I have abilities that certain people don’t,” said Ennis. “I have skill that some people don’t have. I think Toronto maybe recognizes that.”
In signing Ennis this summer, the Leafs made an extremely low-risk bet. He took the league minimum – $650,000 – after having the final year of his $4.6-million annual deal bought out by the Minnesota Wild.
You can find a clear demarcation in Ennis’s career between when he was healthy and when the injuries started piling up. He produced .61 points per game over his first six NHL seasons and has seen that rate fall to .31 during the last three, when he’s dealt with multiple concussions and missed almost half of the 2016-17 season because of double sports hernia surgery.
What makes the veteran forward believe so strongly that he’ll be a reclamation project who pays dividends for the Leafs are the vast resources he now has at his disposal. He moved to Toronto immediately after signing his new contract on July 6, foregoing his usual long off-season stretch at home in Edmonton, so that he could start working the organization’s unmatched sports science and medical staff.
After just two months of being exposed to the Leafs operation, Ennis is reporting big gains in mobility at the outset of camp. He’s worked with the rehab specialist, sports science and performance director and been on the treatment table virtually every day.
“I feel like their staff is so advanced that they were able to kind of pinpoint certain things that maybe were hindering me that I had kind of just dealt with in the past as though it was always going to be there,” he said. “So they were able to loosen up my hips and groins that maybe were limiting me before. I feel like my quickness is there. I feel like I’m ready to roll.”
His work didn’t end when the buzzer sounded on Wednesday’s 4-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre. Ennis scored twice, including an empty netter, and went straight from his post-game media responsibilities to a back room to get his hips realigned.
The improved health has dramatically improved Ennis’s outlook – he says “I was kind of in a bad place” while reflecting on his failed season in Minnesota – and could ultimately provide the Leafs with a highly cost-effective scoring option if he can regain some of his ability to get around the ice.
The fact he was chosen to hold down William Nylander’s spot in camp beside Auston Matthews and Patrick Marleau is both a reward for the extra work he put in over the summer and a reflection of the internal belief that he’ll eventually end up on Nazem Kadri’s left side once Nylander is signed to a new contract.
“He’s getting a real good opportunity obviously playing with Matty,” said coach Mike Babcock. “So I’m just looking for speed and tenacity and work ethic. If you get those things the rest of it will happen for him.
“Being healthy is important for him, obviously.”
While there is no guarantee that Ennis will ever become the offensive threat he once was, his situation highlights how wealthy teams like the Leafs can make use of their extra resources to gain an advantage on rivals in a salary cap world.
Kyle Dubas has expanded the organization’s staff in the months since being promoted to general manager – hiring Dr. Meg Popovic, for example, as the director of athlete wellbeing and performance – while also adding to the player development, hockey research, scouting and medical departments.
Finding useful players on cap-friendly contracts will be vital for the Leafs once the extensions for Matthews, Nylander and Mitch Marner kick in next season. Consider Ennis as Patient 1 in the Dubas Era. The veteran forward had other options in free agency but chose Toronto because of how management viewed his potential within the context of their overall program.
“I just think people look at the last few years and say ‘What’s going on here?”’ said Ennis. “When I meet people and they see that I’m willing and able and determined and have a chip on my shoulder, I think they looked at my body and said: ‘OK we can work with this.’
“They have such a good staff and such a good team in strength and conditioning, that they’re confident that my body is going to be strong and flexible and fast and all those things that made me the player I was a few years ago.”
Ennis certainly opened eyes in the organization because of how quickly he got to Toronto in July and how committed he was to the program.
“It was clear that he knew that he had a lot at stake moving forward,” said Dubas. “We just thought we could provide him with a great opportunity to kind of get back on track and get rolling again. Seeing him, how hard he worked in the summer, kind of gave validation to what he said he was going to do.
“We’re excited about him.”
The feeling is mutual.
“Everybody has ups and downs in their career, everyone has bumps in the road,” said Ennis. “It’s just how you get out of it. This is an opportunity for me to get out of it.”