Ennis signing a glimpse into Maple Leafs’ free agent future

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When people look back at Kyle Dubas’ time as Toronto Maple Leafs GM, they’re not going to devote a chapter of that book to signing Tyler Ennis to a dirt-cheap contract.

Still, the thing about Dubas is that, in an ideal scenario, he might use his analytics background to make smart moves not just in bombastic ways by signing John Tavares, but also by improving the Maple Leafs at the margins.

There’s no guarantee that Ennis will be an everyday player for the Maple Leafs, as it’s quite plausible that the 28-year-old could be passed up in training camp by Marlies hoping to graduate from winning a Calder Cup in the AHL (and exciting Dubas greatly) to roster sports with the big team.

Yet, by signing Ennis to a $650K clip, the Maple Leafs are opening the door for the diminutive forward to provide really nice value.

Barely landing an NHL contract should provide plenty of motivation for Ennis to give this all he has, and while he’s undoubtedly a small player, he can side into a variety of spots in the lineup and bring skill to the table. While Ennis only scored 22 points in 73 games for Minnesota last season, he only averaged about 12 minutes of ice time.

No doubt, the last three seasons have been brutal, with 2015-16 and 2016-17 ravaged by injuries.

Even so, Ennis is a three-time 20+ goal scorer, generating three 40+ point seasons and scoring at least 30 points on two other occasions. If injuries hit the Maple Leafs this season, it’s conceivable that Ennis could enjoy a reclamation season. If not, he could easily be demoted to the AHL or serve as a healthy scratch. The reward could be solid, while the risk is quite low.

Ennis-type signings are almost certainly going to be a more frequent feature of the Maple Leafs’ future than flashy ones like landing Tavares, too, at least when it comes to adding players from outside the organization.

Dubas pointedly states that the Maple Leafs will be able to retain core players around Tavares, which means striking a deal with William Nylander this summer and eventually coming to agreements with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

“We can, and we will,” Dubas said about signing those players during an interview on the “31 Thoughts” podcast.

Getting Matthews, Nylander, and Marner to sign team-friendly deals would be arguably an even more impressive feat than convincing Tavares to come home to Toronto, and it’s plausible to make it work. As much demand as those three could draw, the Maple Leafs boast a ton of leverage being that all three are/would be RFAs. It also doesn’t hurt that this team is built nicely to compete for quite a few years.

Depth is important in the NHL, though, and the other challenge for Dubas is to find dirt-cheap and/or value players to be the electrons to that high-level nucleus.

Some of that process comes down to cutting the fat. Toronto managed to get rid of an excessive depth contract without retaining salary by trading Matt Martin. It may end up being ideal to move Patrick Marleau in the final year of his contract, and recent events have shown that rebuilding NHL teams will often house cap hits for the cost of futures.

(Considering how Dubas likes to gather a quantity of picks by trading down, it wouldn’t be surprising if he’d have plenty of room to bribe teams while still having selections left over.)

Beyond that, it will be about rummaging through the bargain bin for supporting cast members, and echoing their rivals the Lightning in finding gems in the draft. Barring a skyrocketing salary cap over the next few years, there will be more Ennis-type signings than Tavares blockbusters for Toronto, at least if Dubas truly “can and will” keep the big four forwards in town.

So, the Ennis signing isn’t spectacular in a vacuum, yet if teams win more of these, they’ll win in the long run.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.