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Maple Leafs' Ennis shows shades of old self as he provides value in depth role

Once considered a top prospect a decade ago, Tyler Ennis never was able to perform to the high expectations placed on him. Now, he has proven his worth as a depth player with the Toronto Maple Leafs this season.

Seventy-seven hat-tricks have been scored in the NHL this season, and no name on that list may be more surprising than Tyler Ennis.

When Ennis, an Edmonton, Alta. native, scored three goals against the Calgary Flames on Monday, he truly looked like his old self once again, something that’s been missing for nearly a decade.

If you didn’t follow his career nearly a decade ago, you’d probably be surprised to know Ennis was one of the top young prospects in the sport. A first-round pick (26th overall) of the Buffalo Sabres in 2008, it didn’t seem like his small size was going to prevent him from making an impact on his flight to the NHL.

Ennis proved to be a dominant player with the WHL's Medicine Hat Tigers, leading his team in scoring during his final two seasons before topping all AHL rookies with 65 points in 2009-10. He was an important player on Canada’s World Junior team in 2009, too.

But the days of Ennis being a big-time scorer wouldn’t last long. He posted 49 points in his rookie season in 2010-11 with Buffalo, but whether it be due to multiple injuries or a lack of consistency, Ennis has yet to match that total since.

The Toronto Maple Leafs signed Ennis to a one-year, $650,000 (the league minimum) deal in July, with the expectation he would play a veteran bottom-six role on a team filled with young rising stars.

He never truly met the expectations that were thrust upon him as a teenager, but given his role with the Leafs these days, that’s OK. Over the past few years, teams haven’t used Ennis as a primary scoring winger, but rather as a guy who, with the right tools around him, can be utilized as a secondary threat – a more-than-capable bottom-six forward who gets time on the power play.

In an era where teams are filling their third and fourth lines with speed and skill rather than grit and face punching, Ennis’ mix of high-octane energy and natural play-making abilities presents him as an ideal fourth-liner on a team that’s among the league-leaders in goals.

It’s easy to forget where Ennis came from prior to what can be seen as a rebirth of his NHL career at 29. At one point in his career, Ennis saw action with the likes of Thomas Vanek, Jochen Hecht and Derek Roy, all outstanding players during their prime years with the Sabres.

But as his time with the team started to wear on, his role with the team, partly due to injuries, would push him further and further down the lineup. A lingering ankle injury during the 2011-12 season started to slow his speed, one of the 5-foot-9 winger’s biggest assets. Then, concussions started to play a role in taking him out of action, making it harder for him to make an impact. Having double sports hernia surgery in 2016-17 didn't help his case, either.

Ennis never was able to live up to his five year, $23-million contract from 2014 with Buffalo and later Minnesota, going on to have many extended scoreless draughts. Maybe he simply wasn’t built for the spotlight and is better suited in a depth role over a full season.

Currently in his 10th season of pro hockey, Ennis has emerged as a vital part of a Leafs team that has had a revitalization of their own over the past few years.

You could argue that a healthy Ennis is better than most fourth-line wingers in the NHL, even if the plan is to use him sparingly. Ennis is producing at just under a .5 points per game and has 12 goals to his credit, which, by the way, is the same amount as Arizona Coyotes leading-scorer Clayton Keller, who usually plays around double the amount as Ennis.

Ennis is on pace to finish with 17 goals and 24 points in 56 games, his best offensive season since 2014-15. Playing on a good team that scores often helps, but Ennis does a lot of the dirty work for his line, no matter who he plays with, and his stickwork is rather impressive for a player in his role.

With five goals in the past five games, Ennis is coming on strong just in time for the playoffs, and with Toronto clogged at both wings, this is a great sign for him. Ennis has seen his ice time improve in recent weeks after recovering from an ankle injury and has played quite well in recent outings.

A fast winger who can put up around 15 goals a year is ideal for any team looking to improve their fourth line. That’s exactly what Ennis has managed to do this year, and while he may not get the attention or respect of other depth guys like Andreas Johnsson, Connor Brown or even Trevor Moore as of late, there’s no denying the offensive value Ennis brings to the Leafs.

Having a career night in his home province is one thing, but if anything, Monday was his way of showing he can still get the job done.

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