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Enstrom's long stick guiding him to career season

by John Manasso /
ATLANTA -- Tobias Enstrom lives by the maxim, "Speak softly and carry a big stick."

Among the shortest defensemen in the NHL, the 5-foot-10 All-Star uses almost as long a stick as is permissible under NHL rules. Enstrom, who is tied for third in the League among defensemen in points with 40 entering Thursday's games, also prefers to let his game serve his premier form of self-expression.

In a poll of two of the Thrashers' four Swedes (not including Enstrom himself) as to what was the most interesting aspect about their countryman and teammate, both Johnny Oduya and Niclas Bergfors struggled with a response. Bergfors finally offered that Enstrom has a bit of a dry wit, a trait that rarely shows itself among media types.

No, Enstrom has become much better known this season for being the Butch Cassidy to defense partner and fellow All-Star Dustin Byfuglien's Sundance Kid.

Byfuglien, who leads NHL defensemen in goals with 16, does most of the shooting. Enstrom, with 32 assists, prefers to pass first.

After a breakout rookie season in 2006-07 with 38 points in which he earned a spot on the League's all-rookie team, the former eighth-round pick (a round since eliminated) languished for much of his sophomore season.

Enstrom lost out on power play time to 39-year-old veteran Mathieu Schneider that season and his points total dipped to 32, although he did somehow manage to finish a career-best plus-14 on a team that placed 27th overall and with a goal differential of minus-23.

But last season Enstrom totaled a career-best 50 points and earned a berth on Sweden's Olympic team. Now, at age 26 he is cracking the League's elite with his first All-Star appearance. In his fourth season, he has never missed a game, totaling 294 entering Thursday with the Thrashers eighth in the Eastern Conference but just six points out of first in the Southeast Division.

"Well, I've always thought Toby's a real good player," said Detroit assistant coach Brad McCrimmon, who had Enstrom as a rookie when he was associate coach in Atlanta. "When I was there, I played him a ton. I thought he was a real good player. He's got better support now from a team standpoint and the last couple of years [Thrashers general manager Rick Dudley] has handpicked different bodies and brought them in. They've done a good job of that. I think Toby's a benefactor of that. Obviously, people will start paying more attention, but I always had a lot of respect for Toby as a player and had a lot of time for him."

Thrashers defenseman Brent Sopel, who played the last few seasons in Chicago with Duncan Keith, the 2010 Norris Trophy winner, describes Enstrom as "calm, cool and collected."

"He's got a lot of patience with the puck," Sopel said. "He's great at looking off guys and when he does have guys on him, he's great at spinning off them and making a pass. It's the full package. Obviously, you've got to be able to skate, you've got to be able to have the hands, the patience, to do what he does."

Asked to talk about Enstrom's game, teammates and opponents alike used the word "special." Oduya has played with both Enstrom and Brian Rafalski, another small-in-stature yet high-scoring defenseman. Perhaps surprisingly, Oduya said they were dissimilar and that Rafalski, like Byfuglien, is more of a shooter, always looking for his wrist shot. He also said Rafalski was more of a risk-taker, which has become Byfuglien's role among the Thrashers' points on the power play while Enstrom, whom Dudley said was once a "riverboat gambler," has played it safer. Yet, Oduya found one commonality.

"Both are very good point people," he said of Rafalski and Enstrom. "The two best I've played with."

Part of the reason for Enstrom's effectiveness is his ability to wield that long stick like a virtuoso. NHL rules permit a maximum length from the top of the knob (which Enstrom puts on his stick) to the heel of 63 inches (players of a certain height may apply for an exemption). Enstrom's measures 61 ½. Among his teammates, 6-6 Nik Antropov uses a shorter stick, as does the 6-3 Byfuglien.

Only 6-4 Freddy Modin uses a longer one and, at that, Modin's is only about a half-inch longer.

"Using a long stick can be an advantage, of course, defensively, the reach and ability to tip pucks away or get involved before you're even there," Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay said. "But it takes a pretty good player to use one. You have to have some talent, some skill to handle the puck when it's that far from you. You can see where he drops his hand down -- not many guys I've ever seen do that before -- but he can shorten it up, lengthen it out. I've seen other people try and it's not always effective."

That adaptation -- the dropping of his top hand to be able to accept passes that land near his skates almost like a baseball player sliding his hands down a bat to bunt with greater control and dexterity -- has made Enstrom something of both a pioneer and an example. Byfuglien, among other Thrashers, has copied it.

"It's interesting," Ramsay said. "I haven't seen a lot of guys do that, but if you can be that aware with your hands and the stick is so vital and he finds different ways to use it and, obviously, effectively."

Tampa Bay defenseman Mattias Ohlund was Enstrom's defense partner during the Olympics for Sweden. Ohlund, who is 6-4, marvels at the way Enstrom can use a bigger stick than he can.

"You know what -- I'd like to be able to use a long stick but I just can't -- any guy who can use a long stick, it's to his advantage," Ohlund said. "His size, obviously, he's not a big guy, but when he uses that long stick, he can poke check and really be effective defending with his stick. If you're able to offensively, make passes and make plays the way he does, it's an advantage."

Enstrom said he first began using a longer stick at age 16 under the direction of his father Ulf. Each year, he would add a few more inches. He said he stopped a few years ago.

It's a subject that Enstrom seems to have tired about having to discuss.

"You should ask the other guys I played against," he said as to why it's effective. "If you learn how to play with it, I think it's good. They're not going to expect you to be there, but if you have a long stick you have good range."
"Obviously, he's not a big guy, but when he uses that long stick, he can poke check and really be effective defending with his stick. If you're able to offensively, make passes and make plays the way he does, it's an advantage."                              -- Mattias Ohlund on Tobias Enstrom
On the subject of sliding his hands down, he had some fun at Byfuglien's expense, showing some of that wit Bergfors mentioned.

"It makes it easier if I get pucks close to my body and stuff like that," he said. "It's tough to handle with a long stick, so it makes it a lot easier to handle the passes, especially when Buff gives me the puck. No, I'm just kidding."

As for Enstrom's impact on the Thrashers, well, that's no joke.
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