Sabres General Manager Tim Murray has made it clear several times since last season ended that the team wanted to move forward with Tyler Ennis as one of its core players. Ennis was the Sabres’ top returning goal scorer and was coming off a two-year “bridge” contract after his entry-level deal, so he figured it was time to get paid.
The Sabres agreed. The deal was wrapped up Thursday and Buffalo’s No. 1 center heading into the season is locked up for the next five years.
The Sabres confirmed the Ennis signing, a $23 million deal, shortly before the start of the penultimate day of their summer development camp in First Niagara Center. He was their last NHL-level restricted free agent.
For this year at least, Ennis will headline a group down the middle that figures to also include No. 1 draft pick Sam Reinhart and Zemgus Girgensons.
Reinhart, who took a tough hit from Girgensons and another one from Jordan Samuels-Thomas in Tuesday’s scrimmage, stayed off the ice for Thursday’s drills with power skating instructor Dawn Braid for what the team termed a “maintenance day.” Reinhart is expected to see some action today when camp wraps up with a three-on-three tournament that begins at 10 a.m.
Ennis, 24, now carries a cap hit of $4.6 million that puts him No. 3 on the Buffalo roster, behind only defenseman Tyler Myers ($5.5 million) and recently re-signed winner Matt Moulson ($5 million). According to a source familiar with the contract, Ennis will make $7.3 million this season, $4.75 million in 2015-16 and $3.65 million in each of the final three seasons.
Ennis, a first-round draft pick in 2008, had a career-high 21 goals and 22 assists last season in 80 games. It was the back end of a two-year, $5.6 million deal he signed in 2012. It was no surprise he was looking for a long-term contract this time, akin to the six-year, $25.5 million pact teammate Cody Hodgson got last summer from former general manager Darcy Regier.
“Tyler wants to be a Buffalo Sabre,” Eustace King, Ennis’ agent, told The Buffalo News by phone Thursday from Los Angeles. “They were the team that took him in the first round. There were a handful of teams that considered him that year and Buffalo was the one that took him. You have to give them a lot of credit for believing in him.”
King was pleased with the negotiation with Murray, who was unavailable to comment Thursday. The team said the GM will meet with reporters today.
“Tim is a hockey guy with a great hockey mind, and he really knows what he wants,” King said. “He felt that Tyler was a person he wanted and he believed in the value for Tyler.”
While the 5-foot-9 Ennis is not the prototype bulky forward that Murray wants to build his roster around, Ennis plays with an edge and has skills around the net few Sabres have.
“I believe that Tyler’s challenge has been that he’s an undersized guy his whole career, but he’s overcome that obstacle,” King said. “I think Tyler is going to be like some of the smaller guys that have gone through the Buffalo Sabres over the years and gone on to great careers in the NHL. I clearly believe we haven’t scratched the surface yet to what Tyler can be.”
King said he expects Ennis to thrive in the prime years of the contract, when his client is at ages 27-28.
“Many guys have hit that mark and exploded,” he said. “I truly expect Tyler to do the same type of stuff. When Tyler has played with top players, he’s always fostered a mutually beneficial relationship between those guys. I expect Tyler to be a 25 to 30 goal scorer in the National Hockey League without a doubt. I also expect him to be a 70-plus point guy …
“Those are high expectations. He has them for himself, and if you look at his history, there are enough indicators from his past … that he can reach them.”