The first couple of weeks on the Top 25 involve plenty of faint hopes that any rational fan has to recognize probably won’t ever reach the NHL. We’re used to being cautious and cynical about them, for good reason.
But every once in a while, you get a Pierre Engvall. All hail our glorious giraffe: he’s this year’s #9.
Pierre Engvall was drafted in the seventh round in 2014, a lanky young Swede who had decent production in the lower divisions. The wise sages at PPP basically did not think about him again for three years, as he blossomed into a quality player in the Allsvenskan, the second-tier Swedish league (it’s the one below the Swedish Hockey League, and teams are promoted and relegated between the two.) Engvall hopped over the ocean for one Marlies’ playoff game at the end of 2017, bringing him to the attention of Marlies-watchers firsthand; he was coming off a great year for Mora IK, who won the Allsvenskan and were promoted to the SHL. Still, “fourth-leading scorer on a team in the second-tier Swedish league at 21” does not exactly conjure visions of superstardom. I will be honest with you: for a while in the PPP Slack Chat, I used “Pierre Engvall” as a short form for “prospect who probably won’t do anything.”
Engvall did well in the SHL when he arrived there the next year, putting up 20 points in 31 games for HV71 in 2017-18. He was called to Toronto once again in spring 2018 for a more extended run with the Marlies. It sure went well: Engvall finished the AHL season on a scoring tear and became a key part of the Marlies run to the championship. The Leafs signed Engvall to an entry-level contract midway through the AHL playoffs. People took notice. Engvall snuck onto the Top 25 for the first time in 2018, his fifth year being eligible for the list, at 25th.
Votes - Pierre Engvall
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In 2018-19 he was a full-time Marlie, and it became clear he was one of the more interesting players on the team. Our own Hardev Lad was telling practically anyone who would listen that Engvall was an NHL-calibre player, and Hardev has turned out to be right. Engvall moved to centre and thrived there as a trusted player for Sheldon Keefe, even though he didn’t always get the prime offensive opportunities he might have been accustomed to. We had him 18th in our ranking last year, and for the first time he was seriously on the NHL radar.
And that led to this year. Engvall put in time with the Marlies, but got a call-up and made the most of it after some hot shooting to start. Injuries pressed him into service up the lineup and his production did slow as the year went on, which is worth noting, but he seems solidly likely to be an NHL player. Both Sheldon Keefe and Kyle Dubas agree on the point, if Engvall’s 48 NHL games and his two-year contract extension are any indication.
Engvall works. “Working hard” is one of those eye-roll inducing phrases in hockey analysis because it can mean very little, but when enough observers and coaches point it out, you start having to acknowledge the reality. He has the size and strength to fight along the boards or in front of the net, and he’s willing to do it. He has octopus-length reach and quite good mobility—I don’t think he’s even just “a good skater for his size”, he can actually skate. He isn’t especially bad at anything, and he has enough finishing talent to make him a little more useful than your typical fourth-line grinder. It’s worth noting that a high proportion of his points have been goals literally since he started playing junior in Sweden; he’s able to go to the front of the net and finish plays when he gets there, even if he’s not really a scorer at the NHL level.
Honestly, and I recognize I’m getting dangerously close to A Good Lesson For All You Kids Out There: I think Engvall’s career path is a testament to how useful it is to be whatever your coach needs you to be. There are players with more offensive skill than Engvall whom he has surpassed on the depth chart just by being a Pierre Of All Trades. Winger with a bit of scoring? Engvall. Shutdown centre in the AHL? Engvall. Penalty killer? Engvall. It likely helped, of course, that the AHL coach who took Engvall through those steps wound up running the NHL franchise right around the time Engvall was ready for a similar promotion.
Engvall has a solid defensive stat profile in a bottom six role, keeping his head well above water with a 53% Corsi, 53% of the goals, 51.6% of the expected goals, and 53.8% of the scoring chances. As we’ve seen before from dependable depth forwards, his expected goals against rate is excellent, tied for second-lowest on the team (behind Jason Spezza.) Micah McCurdy’s Isolated Threat, a model that tries to isolate the specific impact a player has, shows him as a solid net benefit to his teams. Engvall generates 3% less offensively compared to average but allows 9% less defensively, so—
[pause for several minutes of calculation]
That’s a 6% net benefit relative to your standard player. We’re used to seeing solid defensive forwards do well against bottom six lines, but plenty of them have such poor offensive results (Frederik Gauthier, the last five years of Matt Martin, etc.) that they tend to net out well below average. Engvall only has 48 games in his sample, so stay tuned on this front. Still, the overall picture on his NHL tenure is pretty consistent, and if he can keep his production humming at a passable level—his current 15 points in 48 games is a 26-point-pace for the year—he’ll be fine.
The temptation is to get carried away with a nice player like this. Engvall is 24 at this point; he will not be eligible for next year’s T25, and we should be hesitant to expect a ton more improvement after his spectacular growth from being picked 188th overall. His production in the NHL cooled off considerably as a shooting slump took hold (1G, 0A in his last twenty games), and Engvall was asked to do more than he likely should have been due to injuries. He seems like a 3/4 LW who can take spot duty at centre, on the penalty kill, or even on the second power play unit, and that’s a totally reasonable thing to be. Depending on what the flat salary cap does to the Leafs’ roster, he may or may not have a spot in the Top 9 next year, especially if Nick Robertson continues his meteoric rise and makes the NHL at 19 years old.
Still, Engvall is a solid, dependable player without too many obvious weak points, who ought to have a respectable NHL career in depth roles. (In some mock expansion drafts, he’s the best Leaf forward exposed to Seattle, so just a heads up on that.) Even if Engvall is no more than an excellent fourth-liner, he’s very easy to root for.
Katya: I feel like I have Engvall ranked too high, but maybe that’s because the yawning chasm that opens up below him isn’t very inspiring. I also don’t think Engvall has totally revealed himself, which makes the contract he signed a small gamble. I’m in favour of it, because he seems more likely than not to be a player you can shove up a little over his real value and he rides along well. I don’t get the burning desire to try to make him a centre, but as a grind-line winger, he’s got some useful skills, particularly corner work. I don’t expect him to ever have a significant impact on game outcomes, so that will make him one of the most talked about Leafs players on Twitter.
Hardev: First of all, I would just like to say I was right about Engvall. Giraffes will always prevail. Second, I struggled to find a spot for him. He doesn’t fit in the top group per se, but he’s well above all the maybes. But at the same time I wanted to give some credit to the kids with upside (I ranked Kokkonen, Abruzzese, and SDA higher). Engvall isn’t going to provide major value to the Leafs, but what he does provide is valuable. I didn’t like Engvall’s 2020 at all. He didn’t look like himself, which either told me his offensive game couldn’t keep up after the jump to the NHL, or that he was just going through a shooting bender (which he’s done a few times before). Considering his start, I’m inclined to believe it’s the latter. I hope he can find his confidence next year and show some of that offensive strength he has. He’s great in front of the net and as a shooter on top of all his defensive qualities that are so clearly visible.
Here’s Pierre’s first NHL goal, a shorthanded partial breakaway where he just straight-up outspeeds the Arizona defenders:
Sure, this shot is from so far out you expect the goalie to get it, but it’s still a nice release. Not to mention the goaltender Engvall freezes here is probably about to win the Vezina.
Where should Pierre Engvall be ranked?
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Higher than this
Lower than this
9th is about right