Maple Leafs’ Ennis feels ‘confidence is coming back’ after big night

Watch as Tyler Ennis records his first career hat trick as Toronto Maple Leafs fans toss their hats in Calgary.

VANCOUVER — Tyler Ennis figures he’ll get the pucks framed. A memento from one of the more unique nights of his NHL career and the high point of his tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs thus far.

On a deeper level, it was an affirmation of the decision he made last July to sign a league-minimum contract with Toronto in order to take advantage of their immense sports science and medical resources.

Ennis was at a crossroads after three injury-plagued seasons and having his previous deal bought out by the Minnesota Wild. Still just 28, he believed he could get back to a reasonable facsimile of the player he once was. A player capable of scoring three goals and firing six shots while playing on a fourth line — as he did during Monday’s 6-2 victory in Calgary.

“It was a tough spell for me the last couple years,” Ennis said after Tuesday’s practice at Rogers Arena. “For me, I just want to be as good as I can be every day and get back to where I was. I’m determined to get there. I want that back again and it feels like it’s coming, the confidence is coming back.”

Remember that we’re talking about a three-time 20-goal scorer and former first-round draft pick. A guy who won gold while representing Canada at the World Junior Championship.

The fact a player of his pedigree was available for $650,000 speaks to how far his stock had fallen after multiple concussions and double sports hernia surgery that cost him nearly half of the 2016-17 season.

Today, he is Toronto’s top goal producer per 60 even-strength minutes played, at 1.77 — ahead of John Tavares (1.61), Andreas Johnsson (1.34) and Auston Matthews (1.33).

He’s filling a limited role on a stacked team, sure, but you won’t find another 12-goal scorer who is averaging 10 minutes per night anywhere else in the league.

The biggest thing you get from a conversation with Ennis is the sense that he’s happy. Back in training camp, he spoke of people in hockey having a “short-term memory” when it came to his abilities. You could feel the frustration and the wear of those seasons where he was injured and struggling to produce.

Even though he is perhaps the Leafs’ 11th or 12th forward at the moment — he was scratched Saturday so that Nic Petan could make his debut with the team — this situation has been everything he was hoping for.

“As soon as I was a part of Toronto, I just felt good,” said Ennis. “They believed in me and that’s so huge in hockey. That belief, when an organization is behind you and they want you to succeed. It was a good fit.”

Part of it has been getting back to feeling healthy again — a task that included an 18-game stretch through December and January where he had to recover from a broken ankle. But Ennis is also described by his teammates as a glue guy, someone they naturally gravitate towards.

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There is the sense that something special is building here.

As much as the engine of this team runs through Mitch Marner, Matthews, Tavares, Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen, the support pieces are strong with Zach Hyman, Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen, Connor Brown, and even the emerging Trevor Moore.

Then you get a three-goal game from Ennis, the first of his 532-game NHL career.

“This is probably the tightest group I’ve been a part of,” he said. “This team, everyone cares about each other in here and we all get along, and I think that’s rare in today’s game. We all like to work hard and come to practice every day. [Mike Babcock] has up-tempo practices and we compete and there’s a high standard of work ethic here.

“When you set that standard and you surround it with skill, I think it’s a good blend. Our goal is to win a Stanley Cup and it has been since Day 1.”

The irony of Ennis’ performance is that it will ultimately lead him out of town. He’s going to be due for a raise this summer and Toronto’s well-documented cap issues will probably keep it from being the team to give it to him.

The decision to sign him in the first place was a calculated gamble — “We bet that our sports science people would be able to get him up and running and feeling good,” said Babcock — and it’s paid off for all involved.

“There’s so many great resources here in Toronto and so many guys looking at different things and teaching you stuff that I’ve never really seen before,” said Ennis. “They care a lot, they work hard. Everyone from the top to down, in my opinion, just seems to enjoy what they do and they work hard.

“That stuff is contagious.”

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