Thursday, July 14, 2011

Player Spotlight + Interview: Andreas Engqvist

[Player Spotlight Archive]

Based on the team's roster as of today, I'd expect the Canadiens to start the season with a 6'4", right-handed center in the line-up. No, Scott Gomez won't become ambidextrous and play while sitting on Brian Gionta's shoulders this year. And no, I didn't mistake "St. Louis" for Montreal when reading about the Jason Arnott signing. The fact is, we have a potential third or fourth line fixture in our system who gets far too little attention.

That player is Andreas Engqvist, a 23-year old Swedish forward who was undrafted but signed to a 3 year entry-level contract by the Habs brass in 2009. But before we get into who this Engqvist character is, let's play a numbers game.

As of now, the Canadiens have 11 forwards on one-way contracts, plus Lars Eller who is unlikely to be sent to Hamilton. The team will dress 12 forwards any given night, and can keep 1-2 in reserve in the press box. Realistically, then, there is at least 1 job up for grabs still with the team. While it's possible that a Brad Winchester or Jarkko Ruutu will be signed for 4th line / reservist duty, at the moment, we can only look to players slated for the Hamilton Bulldogs.

In Hamilton, four to five forwards appear potentially NHL-ready. In addition to Engqvist, there are Brian Wilsie, Michael Blunden, Aaron Palushaj, and Brock Trotter that could be called into service with the big club from day 1. Given that the role to be filled is on the fourth line, the offensive styles of a Palushaj or Trotter are likely to be overlooked, leaving them to call-up roles in case of injury. Barring an inspired training camp, it seems likely that Wilsie will join the Bulldogs to make up for the loss of Nigel Dawes and Dustin Boyd in a scoring role. This would then leave Blunden and Engqvist in competition for the final forward slot in Montreal, with each having points in their favour.

So why do we feel Engqvist will win out? Let's take a closer look at him, beginning with his scouting report in his draft year (though he wasn't selected):

"Central Scouting Report: Moves and skates well for a player of his
size ... good over-all skill level ... a fine stickhandler who plays effectively
in traffic ... a skilled forward with good tools ... needs to
improve intensity."

A main reason he has a good shot at making the team is, as mentioned, he's a natural centerman. With the Habs likely to increase the size and physicality of their fourth unit, neither David Desharnais nor Lars Eller slot in well, and Ryan White seems to project better as a winger. Plus, both Desharnais and Eller are recovering from off-season surgeries, and - particularly in the case of Eller - not guaranteed to be ready for opening night.

Montreal lost Tom Pyatt this summer and a major reason for his departure is the development of Engqvist who can play the exact same game... Just with 5 extra inches of height. Adept on the penalty kill and willing to sacrifice to block shots, Engqvist also surpasses Pyatt in offensive potential, notably raising his game at playoff time with 13 points in 16 post-season contests in his final season in Sweden, and 9 points in 20 games last year in Hamilton, compared to .47 and .35 point-per-game averages during the regular seasons respectively.

Engqvist got a brief taste of NHL action last year appearing in 3 games for Montreal, and whether he starts with the team or not, is likely to increase this number in 2011-12. To get a better feel for him as a player and his thoughts on the coming season, see a Swedish interview with him here (or check the translated highlights below the link):

"I don't regret coming to North America," Engqvist said. "I got a taste of what the NHL is like and I will continue to fight to earn my spot there."

"For me, the AHL was much different than how those in Sweden describe it," he told Marie's Hockey Blog. "Maybe it's just the organization I was lucky to be in, but we took flights a lot, with our longest road trip being just 6 hours, compared to 4-5 hour road trips I experienced with Djurgarden anyway."

"I purposely focused on my defensive game this past year, and now need to work on increasing my production even when playing in such a role. The AHL is different from the Swedish Elite League in that the top 2 lines of each team still have skilled players, but the third and fourth lines generally contain bigger, tougher players and enforcers. In Sweden, those lines are usually reserved for the younger skilled forwards."

"The small ice surface didn't require a big adjustment. The bigger change was the frequency of games, with sometimes as many as 4 in 5 nights in the AHL. It takes a toll on the body," he added.

"I feel I need to improve in every aspect of my game to stay at the NHL level, but I am prepared to battle for ice time in both Hamilton and Montreal. I hope to earn a spot with the big club, and won't make any decisions about my future beyond this contract until we see how this year goes."

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