TORONTO — Before Pierre Engvall became a mountain of a man — a player Sheldon Keefe claims is “as strong as anybody in the game” — he was a tall, lanky kid from the south of Sweden with only a passing interest in playing defence.
That helps explain why 187 names were called out before his at the 2014 NHL draft and why it is only now, at age 23, where he’s finally broken through with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
What Wednesday’s announcement of a $2.5-million, two-year extension for Engvall really represented is that he’s made it. Sure, the powerful forward has been playing NHL games since November, but now he’s got a one-way contract and a very public statement from the team about the direction his career is heading.
“I was really happy for it,” Engvall said before Thursday’s game with Dallas. “I’ve been working hard for it, so it feels so good to have it.”
The native of Ljungby was spit out of a Swedish pipeline that’s delivered a steady stream of NHL talent to Toronto. He found a believer in super scout Thommie Bergman, but the work was just getting started after being selected in the seventh round nearly six years ago.
The six-foot-five Engvall weighed roughly 190 pounds at that time and he’s listed at 214 pounds today. He was also in the Allsvenskan — the second tier of Swedish hockey — and would climb through the SHL and AHL before making his NHL debut on Nov. 19 in Vegas.
“I think I’ve always done the offensive stuff when I played in Sweden — scoring and, like, holding on to the pucks and doing all those things,” said Engvall. “But I felt like over time I didn’t play that [hard] without the puck. And I think Bergman, from the beginning, he’s been on to me: ‘Pierre, if you want to make it all the way you’ve got to play without the puck, too.’
“He’s been on me since the first day. That was big for me.”
It’s tough to imagine now.
If you’ve only been introduced to Engvall during his 35 games with the Maple Leafs, you’ve seen a bottom-six player with alluring upside — a powerful skater that leads the team in defensive-zone exits with 8.62 per game, according to Sportlogiq, but also someone who can jump between centre and the wing, and kill penalties.
Keefe marvels at how Engvall uses his physical attributes to influence the game.
“He can play with anybody and skate with anybody in the NHL, and he has a skillset, too, that goes with that,” said Keefe. “So he’s confident when he has the puck because he believes he can outskate people and he can hang onto the puck. I think just the background that he has, playing in Sweden and in European hockey, he likes to hold onto the puck.”
Engvall credits Keefe and Jeremy Colliton — the Chicago Blackhawks coach he used to play under at Mora IK — for helping him develop some defensive acumen, the very attributes that have turned him into an NHLer today.
As for the contract negotiations, everything played out smoothly.
The biggest priority for Engvall was remaining with the Leafs and gaining a bit of security in the process.
“I just wanted to stay here,” he said. “The money they gave me, that’s what they wanted to give me, and I was happy for it. I think I can develop a lot more and even get better. I think that I will get better.”
If that happens, the new deal will bring tremendous value for the Leafs.
It might even give them a little more confidence to ship one of the middle-tier forwards because they’ve got Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev waiting in the wings.
Not bad for a seventh-round pick, who beat the odds just to get here — although it says something about Engvall that he never viewed it that way.
“To be honest, I’m not surprised that I played the way I played. I think I had it in me to do what I’ve done,” he said. “I’ve seen so many guys that have been drafted in the seventh round and they make it and they do really good. I think [Henrik] Zetterberg, I think he’s a seventh rounder. [Henrik] Lundqvist. [Andreas] Johnsson, seventh rounder. I think [Carl] Gunnarsson is a seventh rounder too? There’s a lot of guys.
“So I try not to think about being a seventh rounder, just keep playing and having fun all the time.”