There's nothing special in the water in Portland, although there must be some sort of explanation for how Pirates coach Kevin Dineen has been able to take young skilled wingers and turn them into dynamic centermen.
The process of polish worked out splendidly last year, when Dineen, on orders from the parent Buffalo Sabres, took gangly Tim Kennedy off the flank and stuck him in the middle.
Kennedy, a former sixth-round draft choice, went on to lead all AHL rookies in scoring, make the league's All-Rookie team, and is now playing a vital role in Buffalo.
Now comes along Tyler Ennis, chosen as a left wing out of Medicine Hat (WHL) by Buffalo in the first round of the 2008 draft. Like Kennedy before him, Ennis isn't very big (5-foot-9, 163 pounds), but he is very gifted and he's also very slippery.
“It's important when you're a smaller guy,” said Ennis,
And he's also leading all AHL rookies in point-getting (11 goals, 17 assists for 28 points).
“It's definitely a big step up from junior,” said Ennis. “It's kind of fun trying to learn how to play at different levels -- to find different ways to get around the net and score goals.”
Last year with Medicine Hat, Ennis found half a dozen ways to fill the net in one game, his six-spot against Prince Albert falling one goal off the WHL record. However, that unbelievable night was just a glimpse of what lay ahead as a pro for Ennis.
For starters, he earned a one-game call up by Buffalo in November and scored a crucial goal in his NHL debut. Then, he leapt into the Christmas break by notching a four-point performance (two goals, two assists) in a 4-3 win over Bridgeport.
His second goal proved to be the game-winner, and gave him his first multi-goal game since he notched a hat trick back on Oct. 16.
“That was a great feeling,” said Ennis. “When (Brad) Larsen shot it the puck just popped out as I rounded the net. I had a wide-open net. All I had to do was bash it home.”
While his nose for the net is being put to good use, so too is his on-ice vision and his knack for finding teammates with the puck.
Dishing off, as well as facing off, are two important parts of a center's job description. Ennis has grown impressively into both roles.
“It's another thing that's fun to learn,” said Ennis. “I've taken a lot of time trying to learn and understand the new position. I think it's coming along well. We have guys on our line who can take draws, so if I'm struggling, we've got guys who can jump in.”
Around the AHL
The process of exposing skilled wingers to the pivot hasn't ended with Ennis. Another Pirates rookie fresh out of juniors, Paul Byron, has also made the move. Like Ennis, Byron is a small (5-foot-9, 156 pounds) guy with big offensive upside. … The hard times continue for the Springfield Falcons, who have now lost a whopping 13 games in a row. Naturally enough, the situation is a distressing one to the Falcons' parent club, the Edmonton Oilers. Oilers assistant GM Kevin Prendergast, who spends much time with the Falcons, said that the Oilers are troubled by the farm club's woes. “It's disappointing,” he said. “It's not what we wanted.” Prendergast cited the call-up of goalie Devan Dubyk to Edmonton, and the loss of high-scoring winger Chris Minard to a concussion, as among the key causes of the Birds' plight. “It's been unfortunate,” he said. “Something we're not happy with. There's a long way to go in the season, but we have to stop the bleeding, and stop it very soon.”
Dan Hickling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.