Pirates’ Ennis growing into his own

By A.J. Atchue || for NHL.com

Rookie forward Tyler Ennis had just put together back-to-back 43-goal junior seasons for the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers, including a remarkable six-goal performance in one game last February.

He led his team in scoring both years, was selected in the first round (26th overall) of the 2008 NHL draft by Buffalo, and arrived ready to begin his professional career with the Sabres’ AHL affiliate, the Portland Pirates.

Not so fast.

Ennis is a native of Edmonton, which he lightheartedly labeled a “crazy hockey town,” and grew up watching the Oilers. He had a natural passion for the game of hockey, even firing countless pucks in the basement at home as a kid to work on his skills, and was thrilled to join the Sabres organization after being drafted.

But Ennis, who turned 20 years old just three days after Portland’s season-opening contest, found out right off the bat that the points wouldn’t come quite so easily at the pro level.

During what he called a transition period that nearly every first-year pro will experience coming out of juniors, Ennis went scoreless in his first four games for the Pirates, something that hadn’t occurred at any point in his final two seasons with Medicine Hat.

“I was getting kind of stressed out, worried, just thinking about the what-ifs” of what would happen if it continued, Ennis said of his slow start to the campaign, adding that he also felt an added pressure to perform as a professional.

But fifth-year Pirates head coach Kevin Dineen – who played more than 1,100 NHL games during a 17-year career – took Ennis aside at that point and assured him that four games does not a season make.

“He just talked to me and basically said, ‘Don’t worry about everything. It’s going to happen. It’s a long season, and it’s only been four games,” Ennis recalled.

The conversation with Dineen allowed Ennis to feel more relaxed the next time he hit the ice, and he responded on Oct. 16 vs. Hartford by not only scoring his first professional goal, but his second and third as well. The hat trick – plus an assist for a four-point night – led the Pirates to a 6-3 win.

“It’s the point where my season took off,” he said. “I got my first goal and my first hat trick the same night, (but) the biggest thing was just getting my confidence back.”

Ennis went on to score single goals in three of his next four games and has continued to pile up the points ever since, currently tied for the AHL’s scoring lead among rookies with 35 points (12 goals, 23 assists) in 37 games, including a team-leading four game-winning goals. He enters the new week with 12 points (3g, 9a) in his last six contests for the Pirates.

“There’s no doubt that there was an adjustment period,” Ennis said of his experience in the AHL this season. “Guys are bigger, they’re stronger, and you have much less time and space to work with the puck. I have to make faster decisions and move it to my linemates quicker.”

Compounding Ennis’s transition to the pro game has been the process of learning a new position. A winger for virtually his entire junior career, Ennis has suited up at center for the Pirates this season.

It marks the second consecutive year that the Sabres’ organization has taken a prominent rookie forward and transformed him from a winger to a center in the AHL, and the early returns on the strategy are positive.

Tim Kennedy made the switch last season, went on to lead all AHL first-year pros in scoring en route to a berth on the AHL All-Rookie team, and has earned a full-time job with the Sabres this year.

According to Ennis, it’s not as though the organization is trying to single him and Kennedy out.

“(Buffalo) really wants all of its (forwards) to know how to play different positions,” he said. “They told me in juniors that they’d like me to try and learn how to play center, so I tried it for a few games and then went back to wing. But I played center all through training camp this year and have stuck with it here in Portland.”

The position change has proved challenging at times for Ennis, who said the technical aspect of face-offs is one area that he has particularly needed to focus on improving. He also finds himself trailing the play into the offensive zone more as a center, as opposed to primarily leading the rush on the one of the wings.

But describing himself as a mix between a playmaker and a scorer, the switch hasn’t hampered his ability to develop scoring opportunities.

“Once you’re in the (offensive) zone, things tend to develop where all the forwards are getting chances. So I haven’t noticed much difference in terms of (passing the puck vs. opportunities to score).

About a month into the season, Ennis was rewarded with his first NHL call-up for a Sabres game at Philadelphia. He got the news from Dineen the morning of the game, on his way home from practice in Portland, and barely had enough time to pack and eat lunch before catching a flight to Philadelphia.

Arriving at the Wachovia Center just minutes before warm-ups, Ennis quickly suited up and then went out and celebrated the occasion by scoring a second-period goal in his NHL debut, helping the Sabres to a 3-2 victory.

“It was kind of good that I was a little late because I didn’t even have time to be nervous,” he laughed. “I was pretty nervous on the flight, but I couldn’t be nervous for long because as soon as I landed it was a rush to get there. I just went out to try my hardest, ended up scoring a goal, and it was an unbelievable night.”

Back in Portland, the 5-9, 163-pound winger continues to work on his game in the hopes of eventually landing a permanent NHL spot. Like teammate Nathan Gerbe – the AHL’s 2009 Rookie of the Year – Ennis has to make up for his relative lack of size with speed and skill.

“Just continuing to grow as a center, continuing to get stronger, and improving my face-offs,” Ennis said when asked what he needs to work on. “(I need to) work better down low and in the defensive zone, and continue to play with confidence.”

Coincidence or not, Ennis’s development as a player this season has followed a similar path to Portland’s improvement as a team. The Pirates stumbled out of the gate at 5-10-0-0 but then immediately rattled off an 11-game points streak, and they and now sit in the thick of the Atlantic Division playoff race at 18-13-4-2 overall.

“We have a ton of young guys on our team, and I think that difficult transition happened for a lot of (them),” Ennis said. “I think as soon as everyone got used to (the AHL)… our confidence as a team grew, and our play got a lot better.”

As he continues to grow, Ennis is putting together a strong case to be the second straight AHL Rookie of the Year winner to hail from the Pirates. His latest accolade is a berth in the 2010 Time Warner Cable AHL All-Star Classic, which Portland will host on January 18-19.

And he’s putting that initial four-game scoring drought firmly in the rear-view mirror.