When the season started, Tyler Ennis was the Buffalo Sabres’ No. 2 center and there were point-a-game visions of him dancing in the heads of the team’s most optimistic fans.
After all, Ennis between Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford was perhaps the NHL’s top line for the final month of last season. The hope when the lockout ended was that they could simply pick up where they left off.
Hasn’t happened. Stafford, the subject of numerous rumors at the trade deadline, and Foligno, a former healthy scratch now being tried at center, have just five goals apiece. And Ennis is out of the middle entirely, sent to left wing with Cody Hodgson and Thomas Vanek.
Ennis endured a minus-4 game last week in Winnipeg and Saturday’s 1-0 win over Philadelphia was his 11th straight game without a goal. He finally snapped his drought on a tap-in during Sunday’s 3-1 win over Tampa Bay.
Ennis has played wing before and is comfortable there, but the 23-year-old was supposed to be making big strides on becoming an elite center. Nevertheless, the numbers made it hard for him to argue interim coach Ron Rolston’s move.
“I understood,” Ennis said. “Sometimes you need to make some changes to spark some offense. I’m comfortable in both spots. I like the wing too. I’ve played it the last few years. It’s just about working hard all over the ice, just trying to win battles. When it’s not going well, you’ve just got to simplify.”
Ennis has 10 goals and 17 assists for 27 points in 42 games. But he’s gone from a plus-11 last year to a minus-9 this year as his defensive game has suffered dramatically. The Winnipeg game was obviously a low point, filled with a combination of bad luck and bad backchecking.
“Minus-4 was pretty embarrassing,” he said. “I thought I worked hard in that game and some things just didn’t go right. Those things are going to happen unfortunately and it was a nightmare. Minus-4. It’s something that can’t happen and it did. It’s something you have to look at, bounce back from and do everything you can to not let it happen again.”
“He’s actually lately been doing some real good things, attacking the net and using his speed the last couple games,” said Rolston. “It’s just mostly for him getting his feet moving because when he’s skating he’s one of the toughest guys in the league to handle. He uses his edges, darts in and out. He’s just got to every night concentate on making things happen out there.”
Rolston wouldn’t commit Sunday to keeping Ennis on the wing for the final five games of the season. The team was off Monday and will return to practice today, with another tour at center feasible. Ennis said he’s not concerned about playing for next season, as the Sabres continue to play for this one.
“That’s not something you want to focus on. You want to focus on getting points as a team. You can worry on those things in the summer time. Right now it’s all about getting wins as a team. We did a good job battling [against Tampa Bay].”
Whether they want to admit it or not, however, the back-to-back losses last week against Winnipeg and Montreal basically ended this club’s playoff hopes.
According to sportsclubstats.com, the Sabres entered Monday with just a 29.5 percent chance of making the playoffs if they won their last five games of the season. Dropping just one point sinks the chances under 10 percent and dropping two points sinks them under 3 percent.
The Sabres haven’t won more than three in a row in nearly 13 months, so it’s pretty apparent where this is all heading.
So their words of idle hope aside, this set of seven games has really become a referendum on several players looking toward next season. After Sunday’s game, most players held on to the working-to-the-playoffs theme. Prior to the game, Rolston provided the necessary reality and perspective.
“They understand where the team is at but also where they’re at individually and what they have on the line in terms of proving their spots,” Rolston said. “Especially for our young players for next year, just building that consistency, playing well and finishing strong. It’s a key motivation for them.”