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Sabres' Ennis swims against tide

The words are crystal clear from all parts of the hockey world. The sport is transitioning back to big bodies, guys who can bully their way to victory.

Tyler Ennis is out to prove there's still room for the little guy.

The second of the Buffalo Sabres' two first-round picks in 2008 signed an entry-level contract with the club Wednesday. It's a three-year deal with terms to be announced.

"I'm just really excited for the future, and I'm just going to work my hardest to help the Sabres," Ennis said.

There is no doubting the offensive skill of the 19-year-old. He scored 43 goals each of the past two seasons for Medicine Hat of the Western Hockey League. He was a threat every shift, adding 42 assists last season and 48 helpers in 2007-08.

Anyone who attended Wednesday's training camp scrimmage finale in HSBC Arena saw firsthand the talent Ennis possesses. He saw a turnover in his defensive zone and sped up the ice. He got behind a defenseman, left trailing Tim Connolly a few steps behind and took a pinpoint pass from Jason Pominville at the blue line. Goaltender J.P. Lamoureux, who'd had a stellar showing in the scrimmages, stood little chance as Ennis found the net. Ennis scored again on a nifty top-shelf backhand during a shootout.

"He has a little Tim Kennedy to him, that they seem like they're very comfortable when the puck's on their stick. That's a great asset to have," said Kevin Dineen, who will be Ennis' coach on the Portland Pirates. "An offensive mind-set, those are the things that are hard to teach. He's got a special skill, so you can see why he's drafted in the first round."

The knock on Ennis is an obvious one. It's his size, or lack thereof. The shifty and speedy forward is 5-foot-9 and 163 pounds, leaving questions about whether he can handle the ever larger players that teams are stockpiling.

"Obviously, size is a factor," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said, "but I think he's been able to push through at every level, so you hope that he can continue to push through."

Postseason success is often a good indicator of what players can do when the game slows down. It's a time of year when Ennis doesn't. Despite tighter checking, he had 19 points in 11 playoff games last spring, scoring eight goals.

"What he has is a dynamic to him that he can take the play to the next level," Dineen said. "I think his compete level is very strong, too. The learning curve takes a little while. It doesn't just happen overnight. He's got to get used to the pro game."

Ennis, who turns 20 in three weeks, is looking forward to learning in the American Hockey League. The center is ready to show that a small guy can play big.

"I think every type of player is important on a hockey team, and I think a good balance is important," Ennis said. "They say there's bigger guys and it's quicker. You've just got to use your size and your strength."

* * *

The Sabres play their first of six preseason games tonight when they host the Washington Capitals at 7 p.m. in HSBC Arena.

"We don't have a lot of preseason games," Ruff said. "Six preseason games isn't a lot. We've changed some things in our system. We want to make sure everybody's on the same page with that.

"The first one is one you always want to get through. We're going to play probably half and half, get eight or nine veterans in there and eight or nine kids up front," said Ruff, who will use Patrick Lalime and Jhonas Enroth in goal.

* * *

Ennis helped Team Khmylev win the Sabres' scrimmage tournament with his two-goal day. He and Felix Schutz combined to give their team a 2-0 victory over Team Fleming in the five-on-five portion.

The squads tied, 1-1, in the four-on-four event. Brad Larsen scored for Team Khmylev, the squad representing the scouting department. Craig Rivet fed Steve Montador for a goal with 33.4 seconds left to even things for the business side's team.

Team Khmylev put on a clinic in the shootout event, as Ennis, Pominville, Tyler Myers and Luke Adam beat Lamoureux. Jacob Lagace and Nathan Gerbe scored on Ryan Miller, who stopped Thomas Vanek, Kennedy and Connolly.

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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