Despite the acquisition of Karl Alzner, last year’s premier unrestricted free agent left defenceman, the Montreal Canadiens find themselves entering the 2018-19 season still with a notable and obvious deficiency beside Shea Weber on the blue line.
During the 2017-18 season, the Habs found themselves using a trio of Alzner, Jordie Benn, and either Victor Mete or David Schlemko on the left side. The stay-at-home duo of Alzner and Benn were inadequate when it came to augmenting Weber’s skill set or supporting his weaknesses. Schlemko found Weber exiting the lineup roughly around the same time the ex-Coyote was entering it. Mete, arguably the best of the lot, remained too raw to handle first-pairing minutes and top-end competition responsibilities.
With few obvious options in the farm system, the Habs will likely have to turn to free agency again to address this liability in their defence corps. The player who dons the bleu-blanc-et-rouge next to Weber next season does not need to be a bona fide top-pairing defender in his own right, but rather needs to fit with Weber’s playing style.
One relatively risk-free candidate for this role is Tobias Enström, formerly of the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets. Despite having spent his entire career with one organization, Enström has fallen out of favour in the last two seasons, and after being scratched for Game 5 of the Conference Final, the writing was on the wall.
Enström is no longer the offensive dynamo that he was during the Thrashers’ heyday. His uninspiring 2017-18 tally of a single goal and five assists in 43 games played is a product of his reluctance to shoot the puck and general non-involvement with most of Winnipeg’s offence (as his passing metrics will demonstrate later).
Beyond the scoresheet, however, the native of Nordingrå does provide two things that the Canadiens could find very useful. The first of these is outstanding defensive acumen. Enström is so good at limiting on-ice shot attempts against that despite only being league-average at shot generation, his overall Corsi-for percentage was in the 92nd percentile league-wide. These shot attempt metrics translated into 98th percentile expected goals-for percentage, and 99th percentile expected goals against metrics for the Swedish blue-liner.
Yes, the Winnipeg Jets were a good defensive team to begin with, but Enström’s teammates dropped from an elite to just a very good possession squad without the Swede on the ice. Moreover, Enström did a superlative job of keeping the net-front and slot regions virtually clear while on the ice, something his teammates were not able to fully replicate.
The second thing that Enström brings is an underrated offensive game. At this stage of his career, the 239th overall selection in the 2003 NHL Draft is highly unlikely to fill the net with pucks. However, even in a down year for offensive production, Enström did a solid job in not only pushing the Jets forward, but also diversifying their attack. Without him, much of Winnipeg’s offence was generated from the points and the high slot, while with him, the Jets were able to direct pucks on net from both points, the high slot, the low slot, and the net-front region.
Some of this has to do with the fact that Enström played a lot with Winnipeg’s top guns. However, said top guns also played a considerable portion of their season without Enström, given that the Swede only suited up in 43 games, yet were unable to deliver a similar shooting profile.
Interestingly, Enström’s passing is not exceptional. The blue-liner ranks below league-average in terms of directly creating offence (SCB% and XPrP60), ranks roughly around league-average in terms of build-up play (BuildUp60) and down-low presence (DZSA60), and is woeful at transitional play (Trans60) — although this latter statistic is likely impacted by the Jets employing more of a set offence than a run-and-gun one, as Dustin Byfuglien also was below average for transition passing.
Where Enström’s passing game shines is his ability to set up one-timers (1TSA60). Not only do his passes lead to a lot of one-time shots, but those one-timers are resulting in good scoring chances. The ixA60 metric evaluates how much of a scoring chance is created due to pre-shot movement, and Enström’s one-timer set up abilities allow him to score well.
A one-timer artist, of course, needs a cannon, and the Habs just so happen to have such a player — perhaps the best player of this type in the league — looking for a playing partner. Enström’s playing style will never be mistaken for that of a traditional shutdown defenceman, but his shot-suppression and one-timer metrics make him the perfect foil for Shea Weber. With Enström’s hockey sense acting as a security blanket for both Weber and their forwards, the Canadiens’ superstar can be bolder offensively, looking for and getting into gaps in the opposition defence and bringing that shot closer to the net.
Enström is used to playing with and against star players. Unlike the raw Mete, Enström has no issues with tough deployments and playing against stars. While Winnipeg primarily used Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey as the primary shutdown pairing (92nd percentile quality of competition), Enström and Dustin Byfuglien were used as the secondary defensive pairing (75th percentile QoC). Moreover, Enström’s main on-ice forwards were Nikolaj Ehlers, Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, and Bryan Little, indicating that the Swedish blue-liner’s play was compatible with elite-level offensive talent.
Coming off an apparent down year and jettisoned by the only franchise he’s ever known, Enström may be a prime candidate for a short-term “show me” contract. Based on past precedent, Matt Cane projects a likely contract for Enström to be around the one-year, $1.5 million range; something the Canadiens could easily afford.
By season’s end, Tobias Enström was a target of scorn, given that he certainly hasn’t played to the level merited by the five-year, $5.75 million contract he signed in 2012. However, while the Swedish blue-liner isn’t flashy, he’s fundamentally sound and would give the Canadiens a versatile veteran on the blue line, making a very stagnant group of players more diverse, flexible, and harder to play against. Adding him to the squad could also provide an example for Victor Mete as the youngster enters his sophomore season.
Enström this year is light years beyond what Mark Streit could offer last year, so there’s no reason for Marc Bergevin to not at least consider this route.