Pierre Engvall jumped up seven spots over the last 12 months after a quietly impressive rookie season with the Toronto Marlies. The big man with the big neck was supposed to be a winger this season, but after a raft of injuries and lack of centre depth, he turned into a very dependable and responsible second-line centre. As a result, his stock has risen from 25th in our Top 25 Under 25 rankings last summer to 18th this time around.
Along with this progress report, we’ll get the chance to hear from Pierre himself after he was interviewed by Habs Eyes on the Prize European correspondent Patrik Bexell, who spoke to him in Sweden at the Frolunda practice facility. Many thanks to him for taking the time to talk to his bitterest rival. Kidding, apparently Pierre was very nice and welcoming.
Understanding the Rankings
I like Engvall a lot as a player, which is why I ranked him higher than anyone else on the ballot. There is a lot about his defensive and offensive games that I think carry immense value in the NHL. I can see him fitting into an NHL roster quite easily and being the type of piece that contenders need to move around their lineup and be that Swiss Army Knife type.
I can also see why Katya and Omar did not rank him. He played in the middle six of an AHL roster and didn’t put up much in terms of boxcar points. He’s also 23-years-old starting this season. There’s a lot to be skeptical about, especially since there are younger prospects in junior that are more unknowns but can hopefully provide a higher upside.
And that’s what I want to get into today: does he actually know how to put up points and how much can he help the Leafs?
Pierre Scores Goals
Believe it or not, Engvall had a great season offensively, leading the Marlies with 18 even-strength goals on 157 shots in 70 games. Engvall never got to play on the top line, his role was primarily starting in the defensive zone against the other team’s top six and getting the puck in the offensive zone. This is something Engvall had to do in the 2018 playoffs next to Greening and The Goat. It was a wake-up call for him after a career being the top scorer, but he took the challenge in stride and has confidently become one of the Marlies best shutdown players.
The Marlies weren’t an offensive juggernaut at even strength last year, finishing 13th in even strength goals for and 26th against. Despite this, and being on the checking line for much of the season, Engvall was still able to finish tied for 16th in the league in even strength goals. For comparison, Carolina Hurricanes AHL rookie Julien Gauthier (who is a year and a half younger than Engvall) tied Engvall in goals in five more games. For the Marlies comparison, Engvall was one goal ahead of top centre Chris Mueller, who got to play with the likes of Jeremy Bracco, Trevor Moore, and Dmytro Timashov all year.
Our sample on Engvall in the regular season isn’t large, since he’s only spent one full season here in Canada. But if we extend these numbers to the last two playoffs, Engvall still comes out looking pretty good. For example, in the 2018 playoffs with Gauthier and Greening, Engvall scored three even strength goals on 32 shots in 20 games. Again, he had just came over from Sweden having played less than 10 games on the North American ice going up against playoff teams in a checking role.
In the 2019 playoffs, Engvall looked great. He was controlling the ice when he was out there and became the primary play driver for his line with Timashov and Korshkov — something he did a lot of in Sweden. Unfortunately, he fell victim to a shooting drought and only shot 4.2% throughout the playoffs, scoring only one goal. His linemate Timashov had four, but only one of them came at even strength. The Marlies eventually fell out in the conference finals after their hot power play that was carrying them lost steam. But again, despite not being able to contribute on the board, Engvall was able to limit the goals against on his line coming out even and was a contributor on the penalty kill.
One thing that makes Engvall so good at scoring from distance is his length and the power he can generate from his legs and stick. He almost has the frame of a defenseman (remember Cody Franson’s shot?) but can pull it off from the slot while moving backwards or spinning. He has a really good eye for the net and gets there a lot because he’s not afraid of taking the puck to the dangerous areas.
I love the Goat, but let’s see him do this.
Pierre Engvall's been Toronto's best forward tonight. Perfect shot to put the Marlies up 2-1 pic.twitter.com/UBjrFITKQJ— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) October 6, 2018
Pierre Engvall escapes from a couple of defenders, before finding the back of the net for his 11th goal of the year: pic.twitter.com/8awahxcxCR— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) January 20, 2019
Some call him a Giraffe, others “The Necc” but none can full describe how lanky, yet agile, Engvall is on the ice. Engvall has one of the more graceful skating strides I’ve ever seen which is why he’s able to be one of the faster players on the ice while also being one of the biggest.
One of the reasons why the Marlies asked Engvall to move to centre was because of his commitment to defense, of which his frame is an integral part. When he combines his footwork with his wingspan, he’s able to cover a lot of ground in the offensive and neutral zones while also not getting stretched too far.
Here's Engvall showing off his transition game last night. pic.twitter.com/pZWTmFDThB— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) February 24, 2019
Part of Engvall’s size is his ability to use it in the “North American style.” He’s consistently been a really tough player to battle against. He’s aggressive along the boards, harsh with the cross-checks, and leverages his tall frame and stick to push the puck to open space. All this allows him to separate the man from the puck really effectively and keep the puck away from opponents when he’s circling the boards in the offensive zone.
One thing that Engvall brought from Sweden was his flowing transition game, and part of that is his ability to see the ice very well and facilitate where the puck goes from there. The transition to centre helped in that area because he was then in the middle of the ice and with the puck first. One thing the Marlies hammer into their centres is to support the defensemen in the breakout and defending. Engvall does this better than most I’ve seen. He plays a full 200ft game and doesn’t need to cheat because he has the footspeed to catch up with the play.
I’m really interested to see how he plays at centre this season after a full summer working on his skills. He said that he wants to work on faceoffs a lot more since he hadn’t done them since U16 hockey.
Patrik Bexell: You’re practising here in Gothenburg with other NHLers, how does that benefit your future with the Toronto Maple Leafs?
Pierre Engvall: I think it’s been good, competing with them and being on the ice almost every day with them has been really good, training hard every day.
Bexell: You looked really sharp, you looked hot out there. Do you feel like you’re at the next level?
Engvall: We’re trying to have fun too, it’s not 100% serious all the time, but it’s good because you get to train in the skill area of the game a lot more in the summer.
Transition to Centre
Like I said, Engvall hasn’t played centre since he was a midget player, but when the loss of Mueller to injury and Sam Gagner to Edmonton (RIP) came, Engvall was given a shot right at the top of the lineup. There were a few aspects to Engvall’s game that really stood out to me as things that will help Engvall make that move to a more involved position.
First, Engvall was getting a lot more comfortable driving to the front of the net at the start of last season and he scored a few goals from tips and rebounds in front. In the defensive zone, he was a ruthless defender, often angering his opponents with those extra cross-checks and slashes the AHL referees like to allow.
Second, Engvall has never been afraid of getting the puck and often gets faster when he’s given it. At centre, he became more involved in the breakout and communicated with the defensemen more than just standing at the wing. This was something he learned playing with Gauthier and Greening in the 2018 playoffs since he was by far the most mobile of the trio.
Third is the training staff Engvall has in Frolunda and with the Maple Leafs. He spent the whole summer at the Frolunda Campus working on his game with other NHLers and I think that daily involvement working on his hands and his techniques will only help him take a step in the faceoff circle (something he is frankly terrible at).
Once again, thank you again to Patrik for getting these quotes.
Patrik Bexell: The Marlies are a fantastic organization, so close to the Maple Leafs. Does that proximity benefit you, because in Sweden we always talk about the AHL as having so much travel and being very difficult that way. Does being close to the parent organization make it that much more attractive?
Pierre Engvall: It’s really good for us because we get to live in Toronto, while some teams are in those really small cities. We have all our skills coaches here to take care of us and to try to develop us, we have a lot of benefits in Toronto that many other clubs probably don’t have.
From the Staff
We had a fun conversation about Pierre. I guess it doesn’t hurt to share it. Thank you to Kevin for actually staying on topic.
Hardev: I love him.
Species: Hardev loves him.
Fulemin: All hail the giraffe god.
Brigstew: He big. He shoot. He play centre.
Kevin: When the Marlies had a ton of injuries this year, Engvall moved to centre and opened a lot of eyes. He’s 6’4” and moves quite well, so there’s potential here in terms of two-way ability. I don’t think he brings much to the table offensively, but his hard shot gives him more offensive talent than Frederik Gauthier. If he can be a big fourth-line centre who can help tilt the ice in his teams favour, the Leafs would certainly take that.
Assigning Prospect Value
I know there’s still the big giraffe in the room saying “I’ll believe it when I see it” and they’re right to an extent. None of the current Leafs got their chance until they were the top scorers on the Marlies. That’s where Engvall needs to get to now. In my ballot, I made a lot of bets on players who had shown glimpses of a breakout but had something holding them back (it was usually opportunity). Korshkov was one, Riley Stotts was another, and Engvall is the third.
I was speaking to Katya a while back and she mentioned that Engvall seemed almost bored playing the offensive role he had in Sweden, he wanted the bigger challenge and he got it in Toronto. She mentioned the same thing with regards to Korshkov in her famous Yegor piece. I like to see that in prospects. That hunger and drive is something that I’ve noticed to be the difference maker when it comes to AHLers and NHLers. It turns an offensive player into a strong two-way player who can still be a contributor even when the goals aren’t going in. Dermott had it, Kapanen and Johnsson had it, and Trevor Moore is the current poster child for this in the Leafs organization.
Bexell: How do you feel about your progress over the course of last season?
Engvall: I think I learned more about the defensive side of the game. Before I came to Canada I was more of an offensive guy, but now I feel like I’m getting good at the defensive game. I’m playing a lot of centre now, that’s helped me a lot at getting good at the defensive game. Protecting the puck, getting to the dirty areas, things like that.
Bexell: Do you feel like the move to centre helped you progress as a player?
Engvall: My defensive game got better. If you’re good at defense, you get to play more offense, so that’s the big benefit.
And that’s where I think Engvall has so much value, more value than a one-dimensional player like Bracco.
When the NHL team carries two elite centres and two more All-Star right wings, two thirds of the top-six is filled for the next half decade. And with the way Kyle Dubas and the Leafs have spent their summer, eight of the top-nine players on the roster are happily locked up for at least the next three years.
Combine that with the current rambling on Twitter regarding player ice time, you need players who will do a multitude of tasks for you, rather than just stack your lineup with 12 scorers and expect for all of them to meet their goals. You need the boring players who can shut down an opponent’s second line, penalty kill, and chip in a few goals while being tough to play against.
We saw an example of that last season with Nazem Kadri. He wasn’t able to have the same production as last season because he wasn’t given the role that makes him great, and his point rates dropped.
We’ve seen players like Josh Leivo, Seth Griffith, TJ Brennan, and Brandon Pirri try to be the scorer on the bottom line who can’t defend and they don’t stick. I think that’s because of their lack of versatility, not the spark of some indictment on the coach. Same goes for the Gauthier types, you need to have *some* semblance of scoring ability or there’s still no spot for you. I think Engvall has a nice blend of both worlds and is coming into his own right at the time the Leafs will need him most.
There will be a fight in camp this September that looks to be overwhelming at the moment, but things always change in the middle of the season and Engvall is in it right with the rest for that spot on the bottom line.
When does Pierre Engvall make the NHL?
|Straight out of camp
|Next year when he requires waivers