Pierre Engvall has travelled a long road to get to the NHL as a 7th round draft pick unearthed by Swedish super scout, Thommie Bergman, in the 2014 draft. Always a long shot, he would spend four more seasons playing in Sweden before joining the Marlies to finish the 2017-2018 season. After a full season and a bit in the AHL, Engvall finally made his Maple Leafs debut in November of 2019 in what would be Mike Babcock’s final game behind the Leafs bench.
And while it may have taken him a while to reach the NHL, it didn’t take him long to make an impact once he arrived. In just his second game, Engvall broke in shorthanded and buried his first NHL goal.
Pierre Engvall’s first NHL goal! pic.twitter.com/lYgUcgCqwV
— The Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) November 22, 2019
It didn’t take long for him to become something of a fan favourite either, injecting some much needed energy into the Leafs bottom six forward group and penalty kill unit with his sneaky speed and puck protection ability.
While Engvall was effective enough to earn a brief stint alongside John Tavares early on, he seemed to fade as the season wore on and saw his 5v5 role decrease before the season came to an abrupt stop.
Engvall’s raw point production of 8 goals and 7 assists in 48 games doesn’t exactly jump off of the stat sheet and if that’s all you’re looking at, then you might be wondering why the Leafs felt the need to give him a mid-season, multi-year contract extension when he had little more than half a season of NHL experience under his belt. But if we look beyond the box score numbers, we can see that Engvall his been an effective player early in his Leafs career.
Looking at the chart above we can see that although Engvall generates offense at a league average rate, he grades out above average at limiting opposing shots and chances. Of all Leafs forwards to play at least 100 minutes at 5v5 this season, Engvall has the 2nd best xGA/60 at 2.14 but just the 12th best xGF/60 at 2.21. Defense is where he provides value to this team.
On offense, it’s been more about quantity than quality for him as he struggles to generate high quality chances but he has been able to finish when he does get an opportunity.
He plays a possession style game and takes good care of the puck in his own end while also being one of the Leafs’ best forwards in transition:
He comes in just behind elite level transporters William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen as the 3rd best Leafs forward at generating offensive zone entries. Plays like the one below are what make him so effective when it comes to getting the puck out of the defensive zone and headed the other way for an offensive opportunity.
“How will the Leafs counter against physical players like Milan Lucic?”
Pierre Engvall: pic.twitter.com/8STxWJiVJw
— Nick DeSouza (@NickDeSouza_) December 13, 2019
Where Engvall has been a real bright spot is on the penalty kill, albeit in a small sample size. Opposing powerplays have had a difficult time generating chances when he’s been out there, especially relative to Toronto’s penalty kill without him. His 4.78 GA/60 while shorthanded is by far the best mark among Leafs forwards too, ahead of fellow rookie Ilya Mikheyev’s 6.39 GA/60 on the PK.
Engvall’s arrival was somewhat poetic as it coincided with Sheldon Keefe taking over as head coach and his game was symbolic – perhaps more than anyone else’s – of how the Leafs would look to play under their new bench boss. It was all too perfect that Engvall’s first goal came in Keefe’s first game.
Keefe had been preaching about puck possession and always looking to make a play with the puck while he and Engvall were both in the AHL and when they graduated together, the big Swede was ready to put plays like this into practice at the next level:
This isn’t jaw-dropping stuff, but a pretty cool decision from Engvall to turn back and keep possession of the puck here.
I’d like to see players do this more often instead of starting a weak forecheck. pic.twitter.com/RVzoZhDTuz
— Nick DeSouza (@NickDeSouza_) May 2, 2019
More often than any other Leafs forward, Engvall will pull the plug on the rush and circle back to his defenders. It’s an effective way to maintain possession but there are times where I’d like to see Engvall be more aggressive taking the puck into the offensive zone.
At 6’5″ and 214 pounds, Engvall skates extremely well for his size. He’s got an incredibly powerful stride and reaches top speed quickly, often deceiving opposing defenders and leaving them flat footed. He looks like a giant, long necked William Nylander weaving through the neutral zone with the puck on his stick.
Love the pass on the rush by Pierre Engvall. Engvall has been on fire since his call up. pic.twitter.com/s4YbbWwjH1
— Josh Tessler (@JoshTessler_) December 15, 2019
Engvall has carved out a role in the the Leafs lineup due, in large part, to his versatility. He can play both wing positions and fill in at center if needed, and he can slide up and down the lineup because of his skating and hockey sense. He’s always thinking about being a responsible defensive player first, but he has enough skill to play alongside the big boys and fill the puck hound role that Zach Hyman excels in.
Engvall breaks up the exit, then makes a beautiful pass to set up Nylander.
Also, Willy’s reaction 🥰 pic.twitter.com/UtQm7y4faL
— The Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) January 15, 2020
It was a tale of two Engvalls this season as he went from being involved in the play every time he was on the ice early on, to someone who was more or less invisible many nights after the new year. The Leafs need the more assertive and more dynamic version of Engvall from November and December to show up in this series.
Columbus is a physical team and they’re going to be trying to force the Leafs away from their possession based style by finishing their checks hard and often. The Leafs, and especially Engvall, like to try and hang onto the puck for as long as possible before making a play but that could prove difficult with Josh Anderson flying around the ice like a heat seeking missile. While Engvall is a big man, he isn’t the most physical player and it will be interesting to see how he responds to the aggressive nature of John Tortorella’s Blue Jackets.
Barring significant injury or other health related issues, the Leafs shouldn’t have to rely on Engvall to generate much offense in this series. He just needs to continue to play a responsible defensive game and neutralize whatever line he gets on the ice against.
It remains to be seen exactly how the Leafs lineup is going to look when play finally resumes. Left wing is probably the most unsettled position on Toronto’s depth chart as it stands right now, with Andreas Johnsson still on the shelf and Nick Robertson looking to earn a job as well. With so much up in the air, Engvall could end up flanking Auston Matthews or John Tavares, or he could be relegated to fourth line minutes and penalty kill duty.
After his long and unlikely climb to the NHL, no one should be surprised if Engvall finds himself in the upper half of the Leafs lineup when all is said and done.
(Statistics from NaturalStatTrick.com
Viz from chartinghockey.ca, Andy & Rono,