At the time of writing this I have no idea whether Pierre Engvall will be making his NHL debut tonight against the Vegas Golden Knights. Regardless, I’m writing this, so let’s hope I’m not jinxing anything.
The Toronto Marlies top scorer was called up to the Maple Leafs yesterday ahead of their road trip on the west coast. The team had left for Vegas while Engvall was busy scoring two goals in a Marlies win over the Texas Stars on Sunday, so he missed the flight and subsequent practice the next morning.
Let’s assume Mike Babcock and the Leafs ease Engvall into the lineup on the fourth line with familiar linemate Frederik Gauthier as well as Nick Shore. What does Engvall provide? And what should we expect out of 8-10 minutes from him with limited offensive opponents? Thanks to two years within a stacked Marlies roster, Engvall has a lot of tools in his belt that can be called upon in a variety of situations.
Defense and Matchups
When Engvall arrived in Toronto to stay, he was only 20-years-old and soon-to-be 21. After a handful of games with the AHL-leading Marlies where he was nearly a point-per-game, Engvall was thrust right onto the fourth line with centres Gauthier and Colin Greening, tasked with being Sheldon Keefe’s shutdown and defensively biased line.
In his 20 playoff games that resulted in the Marlies hoisting the Calder Cup, Engvall was tasked with providing the zone exits and board play, transforming defensive zone faceoffs into offensive zone shifts for the more offensively gifted lines after them. They did it to perfection such that it became the model for what Babcock has turned the Gauthier line into now: 5% offensive zone starts, low-event hockey, and hopefully even goals for.
Engvall can play this kind of hockey, and he can do it with a lot of success. The first half of his rookie season, he continued in this role to start his first full season with the Marlies in 2018-19 before injuries inevitably pushed him to centre and into the top six. Ignore the stereotypes around European players. Engvall, like many others (ie. Ilya Mikheyev) worked his ass off to learn and excel at being a defensive forward, and his strong, consistent play forced the Marlies to find more ice time for him. This was in the role of centre and special teams last year. Now, Engvall runs his own power play unit, is on the penalty kill, and is arguably in the middle of the team’s first line.
“This year we’ve been trying different things with Pierre to try and make him a more versatile player. The way he skates, the way he shoots the puck, the tools he has offensively he’s always brought to the table. Whether it’s penalty kill time, whether it’s playing on a checking line, and now playing centre. It’s these types of things that we want to do to put more tools at his disposal, so as his career progresses, he can fill more roles.” - Sheldon Keefe
Transition and Offense
We’ve seen the highlights all season long. Dating back to his high-scoring seasons in Sweden as a teenager, Engvall has always been a talented shooter and skater. Despite his 6’5” size, he can get around the rink really well and uses his long legs to power his stride. While this may reduce some of his agility, Engvall has been clever with his body positioning and stick to be able to catch and make passes in a really smooth and fast-paced way. #GiraffesCanSkateToo
For much of last season, Engvall was the only player who could carry the puck from deep in his own zone out into the offensive zone under pressure. He did it constantly, using his edges to gain a step, then use his long strides to power out of the zone. Here’s a clip from this season that I think shows this perfectly:
Great moves from Pierre Engvall here. Quick feet to spin around a check before making a few short passes to create offense from defense. Then, hands the puck off after a zone entry and heads straight to the net. This is the stuff you like to see from a real 200ft player. #Marlies pic.twitter.com/ijypEoNgmC— Hardev Lad (@HardevLad) November 10, 2019
Here’s another play where Engvall has to win a rebound against two opponents in the corner. He shields the puck with his body really well before hooking a pass to Nicholas Baptiste at the side of the net. The Engvall line had three goals and about a dozen individual scoring chances between them in that game, all right in front of the net. One of their best nights of the season.
Another thing I don’t think has been vital to Engvall’s promotion to the NHL, but has certainly helped, is his ability to play centre. He did so in Sweden as a teenager and was asked to do it again just at the beginning of this calendar year. It put him on the map as the Leafs had horrible centre depth, but he never really had to adapt his game to fit the position.
Transition to this season, and it’s clear Engvall worked on being a centre over the summer. I’ve heard his faceoff numbers are around a nice respectable 50% and visually he looks a lot more comfortable in front of the dots, getting his body really low and using his strength to win the puck. I spoke about this much more in my Top 25 Under 25 prospect report on Engvall, but his core strength is unbelievable. Unlike Freddy the Goat, Engvall looks much more in control of his arms and legs, and uses them to an amazing advantage in front of the net, along the boards, and in the neutral zone.
Relating all this back to his potential role in the NHL, I think he’ll fit in really well on the fourth line, keeping that transition play that Timashov provides, but also adding to it with some toughness and the physical ability needed to win defensive battles. Moving up the ice, maybe he can have some rush chances while his teammates change? He’s decent at going solo, but it’s going to be hard to expect offense right away.
Engvall isn’t a great fighter, but that’s not what toughness is in the post-Don Cherry NHL. The thing that Engvall provides that others who have been called up from the Leafs to play in the bottom six don’t have is the ability to be an asshole on the ice and mean it.
All last season (his rookie year), Engvall found ways to piss off his opponents every night, getting in their heads so they taking dumb penalties. He’s tough along the boards and isn’t shy with his stick. This kind of edge was really effective for him last year because he was big enough to withstand their counterattacks and hold his own.
I want to see this in the NHL if/when Engvall gets the chance. Get hard on the forecheck, or along the boards in the defensive zone, make the opponents mad while drifting away to the bench with a massive grin. The Rich Clune Special.
Here are some of the offensive highlights from Engvall this season. Pontus Aberg has been a great linemate for Engvall so far and the two have created a lot of chemistry. Their passing plays between each other and their ability to find the soft spots on the ice have been really effective. You can see that Engvall has a really effective shot from distance, using his strength to whip shots from the medium danger areas.
Here’s where his 6’4” frame really becomes an asset in front of the net.
I really liked this puck recovery and assist from Engvall to Aberg.
And here’s a 1-on-1 interview with Todd Crocker so you can get to know Engvall a little better off the ice.
I hope this helps explain why I’ve been so obsessed and so certain of Engvall’s success since he arrived in 2018. He’s fun to watch, kind off the ice, and talented. He does everything right and he doesn’t need first line minutes to be an effective player. He’s the type of guy the Kyle Dubas Maple Leafs need and he’ll hopefully get his chance to show that tonight.