Pretty much nobody on the Buffalo Sabres’ roster is scoring these days and this hard-to-fathom gantlet of Western Conference opponents doesn’t help matters. Playing all this heavy hockey can send any building club into quite a drought.
But there’s a nagging question that’s been dogging this team all month even as it pushed to .500 on its Florida trip: What the heck is wrong with Tyler Ennis?
The diminutive dynamo has been a constant since getting called up for good in 2010. He’s 26, in the prime of his career with a trio of 20-goal seasons already on his resume. When he signed a five-year, $23 million contract in July, 2014, it made perfect sense. His agent openly talked about 30 goals and 70 points and it didn’t feel like agent-speak.
Ennis played his 19th game of the season in Monday’s hard-luck, 2-1 loss to St. Louis. He’s got three goals, 10 points and is a team-worst minus-9. He’s simply not much of a factor a lot of the time.
It’s an odd place for Ennis to be. For two straight years, when this team was flat-out terrible, he was one of the few sure things the Sabres had.
Think about it. The Sabres had two of the three lowest-scoring seasons in the NHL’s expansion era over the last two years. Ennis had 20 goals last year and 21 the year before.
Ennis has been guilty of too many instances of playing hot potato with the puck, as well as too many dipsys and dos. It’s a big boys’ league. Simple is usually better. But it’s hard to forget Ennis’ spectacular diving, backhand goal last year against Montreal’s Carey Price that made every year-end highlight package of NHL plays.
“It’s tough because I know I can make plays, make the tricky plays and fun plays,” Ennis said prior to Monday’s game “But you have to get back to basics, simplify and build from that.”
“I’d say he’s pressing too much. You can’t make those plays in every situation and in every point you touch the puck,” said coach Dan Bylsma. “You can’t be trying to when you’re 90 feet from your goal, 120 feet from your goal, 150 feet from your goal. He’s just got to simplify his game. He is a special player who can make those plays, but he can’t be trying to do it every time he touches the puck.”
The offside infractions Ennis has committed that have resulted in challenge reversals have been well-documented. But more damning is the fact that Ennis seems downright jittery with the puck. It’s not supposed to be a hot potato but his control of it, especially in the offensive zone, seems gone.
“That goes back to confidence,” Ennis said. “I want to make plays but it’s not happening right now. I have to work my way out of it. Maybe when one goes in, the monkey will come off my back and those creative offensive instincts will keep coming as the success happens.”
Like any other player, Ennis is never going to admit to you that he’s playing hurt. Think of Josh Gorges and his bad knee last year that rendered him pretty useless until he had surgery. Then think of how much better Gorges looks this year.
Ennis missed two games around Halloween with a lower-body injury and hasn’t scored a goal in November. That’s 10 games and counting. He tallied in each of the two games before the injury. Hmmm.
Right now, the Sabres seem pretty snakebit for a team in an 0-3-2 rut. They were 6-0 when leading after two periods but gave up two goals in the third Monday, with Robby Fabbri’s winner trickling in off Gorges and Bylsma losing an offside challenge by a hair.
Things were no better at the other end.
In the first period, Sam Reinhart tried to feed Jack Eichel for a tap-in and the puck hopped Eichel’s stick. Ryan O’Reilly and Johan Larsson, he of no goals in 20 games, banged point-blank shots off the post.
It was more of the same in the second period, with Evander Kane tipping an Eichel feed wide from the doorstep and Nic Deslauriers fanning on a rebound with plenty of net to hit. Larsson set up Marcus Foligno from in front and the shot went wide.
Early in the third period, Gionta drilled another post a minute or so before Troy Brouwer’s tying goal.
You need your top players to be your top players. Right now, not many of the Sabres are going very well. Ennis is hardly going at all. He was credited with three shots on goal Monday but none were dangerous. He doesn’t add much from the point on his team’s struggling power play either. You wonder how much he’s meshing with Bylsma.
“It’s an adjustment structure wise, X and O-wise for everyone,” Ennis admitted. “We have a ton of new faces. It’s a learning curve for everyone but I think we’re doing a good job adjusting to it. It’s no different for me.”
The season is now more than a quarter gone. The learning should be just about over by this point. It’s time for Ennis to start producing. And on this roster right now, he’s far from alone.