Pierre Engvall had one simple thought Saturday night as his speedy linemate, Kasperi Kapanen, danced New York Islanders defenceman Noah Dobson one-handed off the rush and handed him a beautiful feed for the deciding goal.
“Sick play,” Engvall beamed, following his third game-winner, sixth goal and 10th point in just his 21st NHL game.
Whenever the rookie has scored, the Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t lost in regulation. And since Ilya Mikheyev’s devasting wrist injury, Engvall has become Exhibit A in the organization’s case for routinely grooming the greatest winger depth in the league.
“Every time I see Kappy go to the net with the puck with that speed, I just try to catch up and be ready to shoot the puck,” said Engvall, matter-of-factly. Quickly, he spreads the love to the remaining cog of Sheldon Keefe’s accidentally effective third line.
“[Jason] Spezza is a huge part of it too, because he knows what to say to us to get us going and he’s helping us where to be,” Engvall said. “He’s just a really positive guy. If you do a bad shift, he’s like, ‘Try to do this.’ And we figure it out almost every time.”
The Swede with the French name has been figuring it out in both his transition to an English-speaking country and in his transition from the farm to the spotlight.
Since a rash of winger injuries prompted Engvall’s call-up, the seventh-round jewel out of Ljungby, Sweden, has looked surprisingly comfortable in the big leagues — killing penalties, not committing them, working his way up from the fourth line, and earning enough trust to be occasionally used at centre.
“He’s a heck of an athlete, a heck of a player. He can skate,” says Auston Matthews. “He’s got all the tools. You see him out there. He’s really good player. So, I think he’s fit in really well with us.”
When Engvall first arrived in North America — leaving his life as a power-play, point-producing threat with HV71 Jonkoping — he was only on a Marlies tryout. Before long, he’d earned a contract and a spot alongside Frederik Gauthier and Colin Greening on Keefe’s Marlies “miserable” shutdown line — an essential ingredient to the 2018 Calder Cup championship.
“The experience of playing in the Calder Cup really gave him a great sense of how he can use his skill-set to be very hard to play against,” Keefe explains. “We just wanted to have a better foundation defensively for him, to set him up for opportunities such as his recall up to the NHL here — and I think you see the benefit of that.”
That role required patience and defensive buy-in from a talented power forward enthralled by Marian Gaborik and Evgeni Malkin highlight packs. Each step of the 23-year-old’s Canadian development has started with own-zone responsibility and a role on the PK.
“He’s been an offensive producer most of his life. Coming into pro hockey caught him off-guard a little bit when we tried to put him in defensive situations and penalty kill and checking against other teams’ best players. He’s always felt he had more to give offensively, and we agreed with that,” Keefe goes on.
“He’s got a really good shot, and because of the way he skates and his strength, he puts himself in good spots to get shots off — and he has the ability to beat goalies.”
Heads up: Demotions are coming to the bottom six.
Yet even with friend and countryman Andreas Johnsson (leg) as well as Trevor Moore (concussion) nearing a return to the lineup, Engvall’s versatility and performance should make him a lock. A prime example of milking the most of your ice time.
If he’s sent down, the meritocracy will be questioned.
Engvall’s blend of athleticism and speed, strength and length (dude is six-foot-five), combined with his extended neck and rather unique skating posture, has prompted some not-so-human comparables. His first Marlies captain, Ben Smith, called him “a horse.” Saturday, Mason Marchment grinning while dubbing him “a gazelle.”
The metaphor fits.
“He was a guy that took on a lot of responsibility in the American League defensively but still found a way to be right at the top of our team in terms of 5-on-5 production. So he’s got a history of being able to do that,” Keefe says.
“When a guy with that physical package arrives, you’re pretty excited about him.”
Oh, he’s arrived.
Injured forwards Johnsson and Moore both participated in Sunday’s practice, albeit in non-contact sweaters…. The club held its annual Skate for Easter Seals Kids fundraiser Sunday at their practice facility…. Ahead of Monday’s game, the Oilers practised with titans Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl centring separate lines. When the superstars were paired on the same unit against the Leafs on Dec. 14, they were shut out at even-strength in a 4-1 Toronto win…. The Maple Leafs paid tribute to long-serving equipment manager Brian Papineau Saturday. In celebration of his 2,500th game, the club gifted “Pappy,” a baseball fan, with a trip to the 2020 MLB All-Star weekend at Dodger Stadium in L.A.