Quick Shifts: How patience paid off for Engvall and Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs' Pierre Engvall celebrates after scoring past Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Carter Hart during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, April 2, 2022, in Philadelphia. (Derik Hamilton/AP)

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. I’d totally let Mike Tyson recline his seat as far back as he wants.

1. When it comes to hockey, nothing has come fast for Pierre Engvall immediately.

It’s a pattern that stretches back to boyhood.

The first time Engvall’s father took him skating in the Swedish town of Ljungby, he was six years old and didn’t care for it much.

"I tried it just a couple months later, then I loved it," said Engvall, soon after he arrived on this side of the sea to embark on a pro career. Every day, Engvall’s dad would take him to the rink, and now his long, smooth stride is easily one of his greatest attributes.

“I have some skills with the stick, too. I can shoot the puck," Engvall said in that early interview. "I see myself as a two-way player. I’m a big man, so I have to get better at covering the puck. It’s small ice, so you have to be better at that here. Be stronger on the puck and play a little bit more tough."

That early objective — one that hasn’t changed much since Engvall was drafted by Toronto in the seventh round of 2014, when he signed his PTO, through to his Calder Cup and big-league promotion — has finally been realized in a meaningful way this season.

My, how far this handsome gazelle has galloped.

Engvall has dug in. He’s crawled out from coach Sheldon Keefe’s doghouse and skirted his flirtation with the waiver wire. He has established himself as a top-nine forward on a top-heavy roster. No easy evolution at age 25.

William Nylander was recently out for dinner with Engvall when he turned to his countrymate with a compliment.

“It's just so nice to see the way you've grown as a player and the way you've excelled this year," Nylander told Engvall.

"Obviously, being a Swede, you want to take care of the Swedes around you — and I've been proud to see the way he's grown."

Aided in part by Nick Ritchie’s failure to fit and Ondrej Kase’s inability to stay healthy, but mostly by his own work ethic, Engvall has turned himself into a valued penalty-killer, responsible defender, and — most exciting — a legit source of secondary scoring.

Centre David Kämpf may be the anchor of the third unit, but Engvall’s speed and shot have added an offensive wrinkle that should come in handy in May.

Engvall has already doubled his career highs in goals (14), assists (18) and plus/minus (+9). He’s tripled his career best in points (32). Now trusted instead of challenged, he’s averaging more than 13 minutes of ice a night, another personal best. 

All of this without the benefit of power-play looks.

"He's just found a real groove with his role and been really stable and consistent with where he's been in the lineup," says John Tavares, noticing Engvall (finally) using his outsized frame to his advantage.

"I just think he's having a better understanding of how he can impact the game with his tools. He's so fast and so strong, and it's just understanding how to use that." 

Keefe is encouraged by seeing this late skater, late draftee and late bloomer come into his own.

“That offensive confidence is coming. He’s recognizing what he’s capable of with his speed, his strength. He’s getting to good spots on the ice. And he’s becoming a really important player for us,” Keefe says.

“He’s been great.”

2. Sometimes you just happen to be in the building for something magical. Your company sends you to Tampa to cover the Maple Leafs, and it’s a kid who grew up wanting to be a Maple Leaf, thought long and hard about signing to the Maple Leafs, but turns into Leafs killer that steals the show.

Watching Steven Stamkos one-time his way past Martin St. Louis and become the Lightning’s all-time leader in points Thursday was a moment. Twice the DJ ran back the “Hammer time!” bridge from MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” the local nod to Stammer time.

Stamkos did a twirl to a standing ovation, and even the Toronto bench stood up and watched his tribute video midgame.

Coach Jon Cooper felt the same way he felt when Stamkos came back from injury to score that storybook goal in the 2020 Stanley Cup final against Dallas.

“What an accomplishment,” Cooper said. “And he’s got so much more left in the tank.”

It all sunk in for the loyal captain.

“It’s just funny how things work out, right? To do it at home, against the team that I grew up idolizing, and then having Kuch and Heddy assist on a one-time shot. My parents were here. My wife was here,” Stamkos said. “To have Marty come out and do that … I don’t really think of myself as an emotional guy, but that really hit me."

“It was just an amazing, amazing experience for me to have.”

3. For the first time in 16 years, the NHL has produced four 50-goal scorers.

Goals have been jacked to 3.13 per team per game, the highest since 1995-96. Power-play opportunities aren’t up, but the effectiveness of the man-advantage has hit a 32-year high: 20.5 per cent.

In general, goaltenders are getting torched. Their .907 save percentage is the lowest in 15 years, and a record 116 different one have appeared in at least one NHL game this season.

Jon Cooper has a couple explanations for the influx of offence:

“Expansion is one,” the Lightning coach says. “Everybody says, ‘Well, it's only 30 players.’ But what you're doing is you're adding more goaltenders. So, I think there's some teams that have a wealth of goaltenders, and some teams that don't.

“And I think the disparity between [seeds] one and eight and nine and 16 is bigger than it's ever been. I think teams are content to say everybody goes into the season wanting to win. But I think more towels got thrown in earlier, which [meant] some teams got exponentially better, and some teams didn't care to. Because they have a plan.

“It's not to say their plan is wrong. They have their plan, which is to get better two to three years from now. Which means today — not so much. And so, when you add all that stuff up, I think you're creating more goals.”

4. Shaquille O’Neal called for a Philadelphia 76ers’ sweep of the Toronto Raptors, and they’re on the brink.

Now Charles Barkley is guaranteeing a Round 1 series victory for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Place your bets accordingly.

5. Nineteen-year-old Owen Power, he of five NHL games, has already been described as a “calming influence” by his peers.

“It’s funny to see how smooth he is,” Sabres leader Kyle Okposo says. “There’s nothing awkward about the way he moves out there. And for a big man, that’s rare.”

Even calming influences could benefit from a calming influence, though.

In Rasmus Dahlin, Power has been granted a fellow left-shot, big-bodied No. 1–overall pick defender who has been through the wringer.

“I think he can help him,” Okposo says. “I know how much pressure Ras put on himself early to be The Guy and to try and put the team and the organization on his back and move things forward.

“The older he gets, the more he realizes that you can only control what you can, and you have to play your game and let your game naturally.”

Okposo says Dahlin, who had his own missteps in making the NHL jump so quick, will step and be an excellent mentor.

“There’s very few people in this league who know what kind of pressure that’s put on a No. 1 pick and is expected to do great things. Ras is one of them,” Okposo says. “And the fact they’re so close in age is going to help grow that relationship.”

6. Telling stat, courtesy of pal Nick Alberga.

Since Jack Eichel was activated, the Golden Knights and Sabres’ records are not so different:

Vegas: 14-14-2

Buffalo: 14-14-3

7. For a team that has the puck most of the time and is built around a possession mentality, the Maple Leafs don’t draw many penalties. In 2017-18 and 2018-19, they ranked last league-wide in the category. They climbed to 28th in 2019-20 and 27th in 2020-21.

This season’s Leafs are gaining more whistles — thanks, in part to Thursday’s whistlefest — but still rank 18th in penalties drawn, among the bottom third in the NHL.

The players have been encouraged to foster better relations with the men in stripes.

So much so, the Leafs now have headshots of the evening’s referees and linesmen pasted inside the bench — one set for the forwards end, one for the defencemen — so they can be addressed by name.

The practice began a few weeks ago, according to John Tavares.

“It's a very emotional game," the captain says. "At times it can get heated, and just knowing somebody's name, it's amazing what it can do to gain that level of respect and trust and communication with the officials, which is really important. They really strive to do that as well, with knowing player names. So, we're just trying to have that communication and that comfort level going back towards them as well." 

Jason Spezza no longer wears a letter, but he’s been around the circuit long enough to have built up relationships with the official. He drove the idea. 

“Most of the guys that have been around a while kind of know them already by name," smiles Justin Holl, "but it's good to have that just to make sure you're totally sure." 

8. What if Victor Hedman had a Norris Trophy vote but could not pick himself?

“You look at the top two, obviously [Roman] Josi and [Cale] Makar. A little bit different players but highly skilled offensively. It'll be a tough vote this year, but I’d probably go with Josi.”

9. The Hart Trophy race so tight that Auston Matthews missing a few games down the stretch (and putting 60 goals in jeopardy) could sway some voters’ minds.

Especially with Johnny Gaudreau using the stretch run to pile on the production.

Gaudreau’s 85 even-strength points give him a healthy lead in that category over Matthews, who is second with 74. Gaudreau also leads the entire league with a plus-60 rating.

With seven points in his past three games and a shot at 40 goals for the first time in his career, Gaudreau should have your attention.

10. It was telling that Flyers forward Scott Laughton described visiting Papa and Grammy as “the highlight of my year, for sure,” during the Oakville, Ont., native’s recent trip home to play the Leafs.

“It's been pretty tough sledding here the last couple months,” says Laughton, amidst a six-game skid that has sunk the Flyers to the bottom of the Metropolitan. “It's not fun when you lose the way we are.

“When you come into the year with such high expectations and kind of a new mood in the locker room, and it doesn't go that way… obviously, injuries have played a big part, but I think everyone deals with injuries in different ways. So, I think we could have definitely handled it a little bit better.”

Seems like it’s always crummy in Philadelphia these days. Highlights have been hard to come by as the underwhelming group slogs through its last few dates on the schedule.

GM Chuck Fletcher acted like he was adding to a contender last summer, splurging on Rasmus Ristolainen and Ryan Ellis. And in a span of months, the once proud organization has fired a coach and traded away its captain and franchise face. It has been rattled by injuries and criticized for ending Keith Yandle’s ironman streak before game 1,000.

Worse: There is a disturbing lawsuit hanging over ownership from two members of the training staff.

Four veteran forwards are on the books for at least $5.5 million annually, yet as offence tick up league-wide, only one (Cam Atkinson) has been healthy and productive enough to touch 50 points. They won’t have a 30-goal man.

Their goal differential is minus-85.

Flyers culture feels joyless, and some close to the team have snidely remarked that their biggest star has become their mascot.

“I feel like we've been saying it for two years, but you're when you're chasing games, it's a tough league to come back in. Ultimately, it falls on the players and how we play. But you miss your No. 1 centreman and a really good defenceman, Ryan Ellis, and a couple other guys. At the same time everyone deals with injuries. Pittsburgh deals with it. Everyone's done it, and we just have to be better,” Laughton says.

“We got a lot of young kids here, and you got to try and set the right example and the right message.”

Even that feels like a Herculean task these days.

11. When Carter Hart burst on the scene in 2018-19, he looked every ounce like the long-awaited solution to an unsolvable crease. He posted a .917 save percentage and it felt like the rookie could only go upwards from there.

He was even under consideration for Canada’s Olympic squad.

Well, among goalies with at least 20 appearances, Philly’s No. 1 ranks 36th in wins (13), 39th in save percentage (.905), and 48th in goals-against average (3.16).

Difficult is the word interim coach Mike Yeo chooses to describe Hart’s campaign.

“He came out of the gates, and he was unbelievable. He was winning games that he really didn't have any business winning for us,” Yeo says.

“Like any young goaltender, when your team play is not real strong, it's obviously gonna become challenging. So, I think there were periods of time where he looked confident, periods of time where he didn't look real confident. And then obviously finishing off with the injury doesn't give him a lot of momentum going into the summer.”

Despite playing four years already, Hart is still only 23. Will the losing and the adversity and the pressure of being the guy harden him? Or will he be shaken by how the past two years have gone?

“I think that experience can be helpful,” Yeo says, optimistically.

12. Not much to celebrate on the ice during the Seattle Kraken’s maiden voyage, but I love that they’ve added some local star power to their ownership group, with Marshawn Lynch and Macklemore signing on as minority partners.

Even better? Lynch celebrating his new investment by busting doughnuts on a Starbucks Zamboni at the Kraken’s practice facility:

“The terms weren't made public, but investments like this are usually less than one per cent,” tweeted Front Office Sports.

It’s a PR move, yep. But a smart one.

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