On December 18th, 2018, Tyler Ennis struck twice late against the New Jersey Devils, padding the score in a 7-2 rout for the Toronto Maple Leafs over the New Jersey Devils.
Two scoreless games later, on December 22nd, Ennis would leave the game with a broken ankle. He wouldn’t dress again until February 16th in Arizona, almost two months later.
On a team as deep up front as the Maple Leafs, it’s easy for a guy like Ennis to all into the territory of “oh right, he exists”, particularly after a long stretch on the sidelines. While some chose to remember Ennis’ seven goals in 33 games with rose colored goggles as the season chugged along, others were quick to suggest that Ennis’ impact was minute, at best. After all, he simply wasn’t up to the task as replacement-Nylander in the early goings, and was quickly dropped to the fourth line.
What some people failed to realize, however, was the chasmic gap between “not William Nylander” and unimpactful. And after coming out of the lineup in favor of Nic Petan on Saturday night, Ennis was quick to prove on Monday night that he’s still got plenty to give.
Tyler Ennis returned to the lineup guns blazing last night, beating David Rittch three times for his first career hat-trick, as he notched goals 10, 11 and 12 on the season. Ennis has gone from seven goals through his first 33 games pre-injury to five in his seven games since (prettier yet, it’s actually been five in his last five GP).
With 12 goals through 40 GP on the season, Ennis has blown past his total of 8 through 73 games last season with the Minnesota Wild.
That’s a substantial uptick in goalscoring for Ennis, who was on a huge downward spiral for three seasons since missing most of the 2015-16 campaign with concussion-like symptoms as a Buffalo Sabre. After his one aforementioned season with the Minnesota Wild, the club elected to buy out the remaining year on his deal, deciding that $4.6MM for a player contributing a measly 8 goals was a cost worth cutting.
Looking to rejuvenate his career, Ennis signed on for one year in Toronto on July 6th, at just $650,000. It was a deal which brought a warm body in for the Leafs, who had just signed John Tavares to a mammoth 7-year deal at $11MM per season, and who would go on to be without William Nylander until December. It was also a deal that screamed “show me”, a reclamation project that, if successful, would provide some depth production for the Leafs while simultaneously reviving Ennis’ career.
Flash forward to March, and Tyler Ennis may very well be pricing himself out of the Leafs’ future plans. With next year’s cap crunch impending as new deals for Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews will kick in before others – Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev, for example – are off the books, the Leafs may be looking for the next Tyler Ennis – league-minimum cap hit and all.
Let’s take a look at what options may be available.
Anthony Duclair, OTT
Cap Hit: $650,000
2019-20 Status: RFA
First off, it’s worth noting that Anthony Duclair is an upcoming RFA, and won’t be hitting the open market this summer.
It’s also worth noting that Duclair is on his fifth team in five seasons, and the rebuilding Senators may choose to flip the project winger for future assets.
Duclair made his NHL debut at the age of 19 for the New York Rangers, an hit what many thought would be his stride in the following season, when he notched 20 goals and 24 assists in 81 games for the Arizona Coyotes.
Since then, Duclair has struggled to stay in the lineup in Arizona, Chicago, and Columbus prior to landing with the Senators. His production, understandably, dipped substantially in the time since. It’s recently begun to tick upwards again (he’s got 13 goals through 58 total games in 2018-19 with Columbus and Ottawa), but one has to wonder what the future has in store for the young winter already turned journeyman.
Should the Senators choose to move on from him at season’s end, the Leafs could likely take a swing at him for cheap.
Tomas Vanek, DET
2018-19 Cap Hit: $3,000,000
2019-20 Status: UFA
A veteran of eight NHL teams, presumably nearing the late stages of his career, Vanek may not be an obvious choice for this list, nor the most realistic. However, Vanek has now spent fourteen years in the NHL and has yet to drink from the Stanley Cup, despite being a trade deadline sweetheart seemingly every year.
He’s hardly a reclamation project – consistently flirting with or surpassing 50 points (he head 56 in 80 games last year between Vancouver and Columbus), but one has to wonder whether Vanek would trade a higher cap hit for a chance at a full season worth of going for it. If so, the Leafs should be calling.
Devante Smith-Pelly, WSH
2018-19 Cap Hit: $1,000,000
2019-20 Status: UFA
A hero of the Washington Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run, Smith-Pelly has found himself the odd man out after signing a sweetheart 1-year deal to remain in Washington, as opposed to testing the free market. With just 8 points (4G, 4A) through 54 games this season though, it’s hard to blame the Caps for making the move.
Smith-Pelly has proven he can score, however, with 7 goals through 24 games in the Stanley Cup playoffs last season, and 14 goals through 64 games spent between Montreal and New Jersey in 2015-16.
It’s not difficult to imagine that Smith-Pelly could rediscover some sense of a scoring touch in Toronto, and on the cheap, too. Plus, with the size and toughness he brings, it’s not hard to imagine Mike Babcock falling in love with him.
Bonus: Tyler Ennis!
Want to win a cup, Tyler? Let’s keep the band together!
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Ennis elects to go the DSP route and re-sign with the Leafs on the cheap. And it’s hard to see that hypothetical as anything other than a positive, based on what Ennis has shown.
There may be something to Ennis wanting to stay where he rejuvenated his career, and the Leafs would surely be happy to have him back.
What would you like the Leafs to do? Any other potential project signings we missed? Let us know in the comments!