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How should we feel about Ennis' contract?

From many on Twitter, the first reaction to reports of Tyler Ennis agreeing to a five-year deal with the Sabres: “Really? That long?”
Last off-season, the Sabres signed Cody Hodgson to a six year contract with an identical cap hit to that of Ennis.

Hodgson’s deal was all sorts of questionable. He hadn’t proven much in terms of offensive production and defensive play was (and still is) a major issue. Yet Darcy Regier went all-in. Now it apperas Tim Murray has done the same with another questionable forward.

Ennis is a better two-way player, but the circumstances and questions are much the same: Should an undersized, one-dimensional player who has not proven he can play consistently really be part of the long-term plan? Where will he play? Is he the type of player the Sabres can win the Stanley Cup with?

For the deal

The argument for locking up Ennis to a five-year contract rather than aiming for another short term contract is that he is a dynamic offensive player with even higher point potential if he plays with better players.

His Even Strength scoring has been solid from Day One. Here are his Points per 60 rates:

2010-11 – 1.95/60
2011-12 – 2.61
2012-13 – 1.53
2013-14 – 1.34

To give you an idea of what that means: Thomas Vanek had 2.62 points per 60 last season. So Ennis’ rates are solid, but a ways from him being in the top level of even-strength scoring.

Ennis’ power play scoring has gone up and down. He posted an excellent 5.21 points per 60 two seasons ago, but only 2.60 per 60 in 2011-12 and 3.55 per 60 last season. Production is probably driven by luck, teammates. Again using Vanek as the baseline, the former Sabres’ winger produced as high as 6.40 per 60.

How might these rates translate to 82 games with a decent-to-good team? That depends on ice time and role. If Ennis is playing center with quality scoring wingers, his scoring rates would put him in the range of 50-60 points, assuming he still receives top power play minutes.
 The NHL has gone so far away from the big scoring totals of the 80s and early 90s that only 92 players posted more than 50 points last season.

It is hard to walk away from a probable top 100 point producer.

And from a cap standpoint, keeping him under $5 million makes it reasonable and tradable.

Against the deal

If you are arguing against Ennis’ new contract, the starting point should be the Los Angeles Kings. If you ask yourself: "Is Ennis the type of player who would fit in on a Stanley Cup winning team?" the contract appears a little cloudy. He is small and lacks a consistent effort. The Kings are built on the back of big, tenacious two-way players. Same goes for the Boston Bruins and, outside of Patrick Kane, the Chicago Blackhawks, too.

Ennis is a mediocre puck possession player as well. The championship-winning Kings were No. 1 in Fenwick Close, a puck possession measure. The Sabres’ former first-round pick has been average in this category

****There is an amendment to this, however: It should be easier for a good possession player to stand out in Relative Corsi when he is playing on a bad team. This is because the possession is measured by how good the team is with a player on the ice and off the ice. So, while Ennis’ numbers are average, they really should be better because his figures are getting compared to players like John Scott and Zenon Kenopka rather than Jarrett Stoll or Jordan Nolan as a top liner on the Kings would be.*****

0% Rel Corsi = the team is as good with as without player on the ice
+5% or more = top possession players
-5% or less = worst possession players

Here are Ennis’ numbers:

2010-11: -1.2%
2011-12: -0.6%
2012-13: +1.5%
2013-14: +0.9%

The Sabres’ young forward has been used in all types of different ways, from center to wing, offensive to defensive zone etc. In 2011-12, his offensive zone start percentage (offensive zone faceoffs / (Ozone+Dzone) was 57.0%, but over the last two seasons has been 47.4%.
The flux in usage and coaches makes it difficult to pin down whether he’d be able to succeed in a 2nd/3rd like wing role. If you’re arguing against the deal, you might say the 50-60 point projection is too high because he will play a complimentary role instead of No. 1 center and because he will likely not get 60% of the total power play time as he did the last two seasons if Reinhart and McDavid/Eichel are in Buffalo long term.

So how should we feel?

Ennis’ contract is not an anchor. It still provides the Sabres some flexibility if they decide he does not belong as part of the long-term plan. It also locks him in at decent money if he does become that player. The problem with having a hot sports take on this contract is there is so much uncertainty and still some remaining potential that has not been reached.
The contract’s success or failure also depends on a lot of players who aren’t in Buffalo yet. It’s clear he is not a centerpiece player like Toews or Kane, for example. If he plays a complimentary role and becomes the linemate of potential franchise player Sam Reinhart, he could rack up points without taking on the two-way burden. If Reinhart busts, the Sabres don’t get McDavid or Eichel, Girgensons gets deported, Ristolainen joins NASA, Armia falls into a black hole and Grigorenko won’t shave his sideburns….then Ennis will have all the pressure of carrying the team and the deal could look bad.

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