Change was in the air when Ryan O’Reilly stepped to the podium on the first day of Sabres training camp.
It was O’Reilly’s first official day as a Sabre, and he was only one of several new faces in the building. Goaltender Robin Lehner, acquired on the same day in June as O’Reilly, preceded him at the podium and fellow acquisition Evander Kane followed.
Jack Eichel, the second-overall pick in the draft, was also present after having put on a show at the Sabres’ Prospects Challenge the week prior. So, with all of these new teammates, who was O’Reilly most looking forward to playing alongside?
Turns out, his answer wasn’t anything new at all.
“I got to play with Ennis at World Championships and he’s – for a guy with his size, with his presence out there – he’s so strong on his skates and his puck control is amazing,” O’Reilly said. “Getting to play with him again, I’m really looking forward to that.”
While only 5-foot-9, it’s difficult to overlook Tyler Ennis. In Buffalo, it almost always has been.
Take 2010, for example. At 20, Ennis burst onto the scene with nine points in his first 10 NHL games, the final 10 games of that season. He carried that success into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, co-leading the team with four points in the first round against Boston.
Fast-forward to last season. While the team was struggling, Ennis was still giving fans a reason to cheer. In a 2-1 win over Montreal, he scored the goal of the year when he took the puck into the offensive zone down the right wing side, cut hard to the net, bunny-hopped over the pad of goaltender Carey Price and scored on a no-look backhander.
The goal was nominated for “Play of the Year” at the ESPYs.
Nobody on the team knows Ennis better than Sabres defenseman Mike Weber, the only player on Buffalo’s opening-night roster who’s been with the Sabres longer. The two came up together in the minors and are the only remaining links to those last Sabres playoff teams.
“He’s probably been my favorite player in the NHL for a lot of years,” Weber said. “He wants to win and he wants to compete and he wants to battle. He’s not a very big guy and he goes hard against everyone out there to win and that’s why he’s one of the elite players in the league.”
For people who have watched him, that style has become commonplace from Ennis. For the new faces around in the locker room … Well, it didn’t take long for them to catch on.
Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma, for example, beamed when talking about Ennis after the second practice of camp.
“I think Tyler’s one of the guys that you look at as being a dynamic guy, and you see that in the highlights, you see that in the [scouting report], you see that from Tyler,” Bylsma said. “But I’ve been thoroughly impressed with how much skill and passion this guy plays the game with.
“We’re in scrimmage and he’s the guy blocking a shot. Those are a couple of things that have really impressed me about Tyler.”
When Ennis came into the league, he says he had a score-first mentality. He quickly learned that in the NHL, you have to be a two-way player to be successful.
So, as Weber puts it, he goes the places other “little guys” in the league won’t go. Not only does he fight for pucks, he welcomes it. He attacks the larger defenseman, he delivers hits – he does whatever it takes to earn his opportunities.
Former teammate Drew Stafford once compared Ennis to an ice cream cone in the way Ennis would play bigger in the corners, especially with his shoulders.
He’s not a very big guy and he goes hard against everyone out there to win and that’s why he’s one of the elite players in the league. - Mike Weber
“I really pride myself on that,” Ennis said. “I was raised that way, I have to earn everything. I’ve always worked hard; being a small guy my whole life I’ve had to earn absolutely everything. I think the best part about hockey is the competition, going out there and winning battles and fighting for every inch.
“It might sound weird coming from a guy that’s 150 pounds, but I really love that side of the game and I think that’s what makes hockey so fun.”
O’Reilly took notice of Ennis in their time playing for Team Canada at the IIHF World Championship in May, where they won gold together. O’Reilly was still with the Colorado Avalanche at that point and after the tournament, Ennis suggested to Sabres general manager Tim Murray that he try and acquire the 24-year-old center.
He even joked with O’Reilly during the tournament about reuniting in Buffalo.
“It was kind of funny ’cause he said, ‘Yeah, when we’re playing together this is [gonna be] a glimpse of next year,’” O’Reilly said. “And I kind of joked around because I didn’t know what was going on and then, sure enough, we’re together now. It’s awesome.”
Now that Ennis has his new center, it raises a new question: Just how good can he be?
Ennis scored 46 points (20+26) for a last-place Sabres team last year, his highest total since scoring 49 in 2010-11. He’s scored at least 40 points in each of the three full seasons he’s played, the exceptions being an injury-plagued 2011-12 campaign (34 points in 48 games) and the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season (31 points in 47 games).
Now, with a roster that has the potential to be as talented as any he’s played on, he expects to reach new heights.
“I should,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of good players so I think we should be able to work well together. Any combination that you put out there should work and should produce so that’s our plan.”
Ennis has already produced a few dazzling moments in the preseason, none more-so than his hat-trick performance in Ottawa on Sept. 27. That night, with Eichel as his center, he scored three goals in explosive fashion: a spinning backhand from behind the goal line, a one-timer on a 2-on-1 rush and a goal batted into the net from mid-air.
He also showed off that famous work ethic, stripping the puck away from former Sabre
|O'Reilly with Ennis (Photo: Bill Wippert) |
Clarke MacArthur in the offensive zone and feeding Kane for a goal as he fell to the ground. After trailing 2-0 early, the Sabres won that game 6-4.
“It’s his work that gets us back into this game,” Bylsma said afterward. “That’s the impressive thing about his game.”
Less than a month after opening camp, O’Reilly said that playing with Ennis has already lived up to the billing.
“Seeing him now, playing with him and getting to see what he does every day, it’s exciting,” O’Reilly said. “He’s so good with the puck; he creates so much and he creates so much out of nothing. He’ll get the puck and he won’t have an option and you know he makes a quick little stick handle, a quick step and he opens up the ice and he creates so much out of it.”
Ennis admits that he’s set statistical goals for himself this season, although he isn’t going to make them public. One goal he isn’t shying about it: Wanting to get back to the place where his career first took off.
He smiled when asked about the memory of playing postseason hockey in Buffalo.
“Yeah, it’s amazing,” he said. “Playing in the playoffs my first couple years was incredible and I can’t wait to get back. It seems like a long time since I’ve been there but that hunger and that urge to get back is there.”
The last time he was there, in 2011, Ennis scored the game-winner in overtime in Game 5 against Philadelphia, a rebound off a shot by the other longest-tenured Sabre, Weber.
How soon either of them will have that chance again depends on several factors, but Ennis is excited for the challenge. He confirmed his desire to make that happen in Buffalo when he agreed to a five-year contract last summer.
The journey back begins Thursday when they open the 2015-16 campaign at home against Ottawa.
“I can’t wait,” Ennis said.