Pierre Engvall’s offense and physical play are helping the Leafs this postseason


Sheldon Keefe was hardly surprised to see Pierre Engvall play with an extra dose of snarl and not backing down in scrums after the whistle in Game 1 of the Leafs’ first-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. For years, Keefe, both as the head coach of the Leafs and the Marlies, has been imploring Engvall to use the tools he has at his disposal as a 6-foot-5 forward.

What was surprising, though, is just how well Engvall was able to blend that physicality with his playmaking skills and smooth skating.

“I thought last night (Engvall) was as good as I have ever seen him in the NHL in that regard,” said Keefe after Game 1.

It wasn’t a flash in the pan.

Despite a move to the fourth line in Game 3, Engvall continued to elevate his game in the playoffs, as multiple depth Leafs’ players have, logging three assists. Toronto won the game 5-2 and lead the series 2-1.

The days of Keefe calling out Engvall in public, stating that he expects the young forward to “be better,” as he did during training camp ahead of the 2020-21 season are a distant memory. No longer is Engvall backing off opposition players, and hesitating to use his size to his advantage.

Instead, the Engvall who has emerged in the second half of his first full 82-game season and into the playoffs is one who is finally showing the physicality Keefe has long expected, but without sacrificing his offensive tools.

Engvall is trusting his own play more than he ever has. And with his playmaking not being sacrificed for increased nastiness, he’s proving to be valuable in a still-testy series.

“It is exactly what we need from him,” Keefe said, between Games 1 and 2, of Engvall’s physical play.


When Jeremy Colliton first saw what he calls the “raw materials” of Pierre Engvall, a 2014 seventh-round Leafs draft pick, while he played junior hockey in Sweden, it was hard for him not to get excited.

Engvall’s tall, muscular frame, combined with his stride had Colliton, the former Chicago Blackhawks head coach, wondering what he could become when he arrived at Swedish team Mora IK, where Colliton was then coaching in 2015. But in games, Colliton saw a concerning trend from the 19-year-old.

“He could get by just on raw ability,” Colliton said.

Engvall would coast throughout the defensive zone at times, and when he’d corral the puck, it was easy for him to skate through traffic and create offence. He wanted to be known as a point producer. Even with his size, Engvall didn’t want to be boxed into a role and be known for his physicality only.

Colliton tried to coax that type of play out of Engvall, but it came in short supply.

“When you can still be a really good player and not (play physical), sometimes it’s hard to force yourself to do it every night,” Colliton said.

Though the sense of occasion wasn’t lost on Engvall as Colliton insists he would ramp up that aforementioned snarl in the playoffs, those moments were few and far between.

“It’s mentally demanding, to remind yourself, ‘I have to get through this guy, I have to take one more stride.’ A lot of guys go through it,” Colliton said.

For years, those demands weighed on Engvall.

“He always wants to reach his full potential, and that was one thing he was struggling with, because he wants to be a playmaker,” said Engvall’s mother, Alexandra.

Up until very recently, it was Alexandra who tried to help her son reach his potential. She is a full-time mental performance coach who works with professional athletes, and tried to help her own son maximize his capabilities. They’d speak frequently. Not only would Alexandra try to offer her own insight on what she saw, she’d try to blend the personal with the professional.

It was a blessing at times, to have someone so close to Pierre who could help him work through the mental hurdles that come with being a professional hockey player.

Until it wasn’t.

With the Leafs, the voices around Pierre giving him guidance and advice were plenty. Too many, in fact. He had the voices from within the team’s coaching staff and management, which took priority. He also would hear from his father, Tommy, a former Swedish motocross champion, and his uncle, Rade Prica, a former Premier League striker.

These are voices that have helped push Pierre in the past. But for him to find his own way in his first full 82-game season as a Leaf and truly discover what kind of player he could become, Pierre had to make a pivotal decision.

He tried to listen solely to the voice that matters: his own. In the last six months, Pierre and Alexandra have communicated far less frequently than ever have.

It took a few difficult conversations for Pierre to have with his mother. He told her that he needs to hear less of her professional voice.

“He had to find his own way to win, to listen to his own voice from the inside out,” said Alexandra. “And not to everything around him. And that includes me.”

When they do chat, Alexandra hears far more confidence and self-belief than she ever has from her son. And his newfound ability to block out some of the voices around him doesn’t mean he’s stopped listening to the Leafs coaching staff, according to Alexandra. Far from it, in fact.

Because Pierre is operating free of the external voices, and pressure, that he might have had in the past, it’s as if Keefe’s wishes for Pierre to embrace the physical side of his game are finally landing.

“When you trust yourself fully, you hear everything from another angle,” Alexandra said of her son. “He’s grown as a person and realized that he has to trust himself and go his own way.”

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that as of late, Pierre is trusting himself to do more on the ice than he ever has in the NHL.

Unprompted, Colliton said what stands out to him about Pierre’s play this season is how he is “a lot more physical.”

“When you look at his size and his physique, the gifts he has, (being physical) is something that he’s been told to do a lot,” said Colliton. “But I think you’ve got to give him a lot of credit, and Toronto a lot of credit for pulling that out of him.”

Through three playoff games, Pierre is not backing down from physical altercations in scrums, and pinning Lightning players along the boards with his frame. And that’s being balanced with offensive contributions. He was eighth among all Leafs in scoring with 15 goals and 35 points, both career highs, in 78 games. In Games 1 and 2 combined, Pierre was second among all Leafs forwards with 57 percent five-on-five Expected Goals.

It’s taken three NHL seasons, but Alexandra believes her son has realized that “he can play physical and still be the playmaker he wants to be.”

Never was that more evident than in Game 3, when Pierre was shuffled down the lineup, playing on a fourth line alongside Colin Blackwell and Jason Spezza, but still put together the first three-point game of his NHL career.

Engvall and Spezza have logged plenty of time together throughout Spezza’s time with the Leafs. The veteran Spezza praised Engvall’s growth as a player ahead of Game 3.

“He’s more aware of how strong he is, and how strong he can be on pucks. He’s learned to use his speed,” said Spezza, noting how he’s seen Engvall learn to “change speeds.”

“Maybe early on, he was one speed: very fast, everywhere,” said Spezza. “And now he’s learning to take teams off-kilter by changing speeds. And just as you get older and more comfortable, he’s not battling for lineup positions now. So you’ve seen a growth in confidence in his game, too. Sheldon’s hard on him at times, and I think he’s learned to respond well to that too. He’s just trying to get the most out of him. And I think (Engvall) has realized that.”

Outside of the team’s top line of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting, Keefe could opt for more changes throughout the series in his bottom-nine forwards. Game 3 featured John Tavares and William Nylander paired back together again, and the trickle-down effect saw Engvall moved to the fourth line.

Yet Keefe made clear it shouldn’t be considered a demotion for Engvall.

“Moving (Engvall) down will help us have more ability to get that line out there,” said Keefe ahead of Game 3.

That Engvall is not only playing some of the best hockey of his short career but can provide Keefe with some much-needed flexibility will only be a boon to the Leafs’ chances moving forward. If Engvall moves back higher up the lineup for Game 4 and beyond, he’ll be able to now do so with increased confidence. But Keefe could also stick with the lineup that got him a resilient win in Game 3, given how much offence he got from his fourth line.

Either way, Engvall’s versatility has made him a player who could not only rise to the challenge should this series go back to its overtly physical ways of Games 1 and 2, but also contribute on the score sheet, too.

And even if they don’t have his ear the way they used to, that’s something the people closest to him are happy to see.

“Every player has a different journey,” Colliton said. “At some point, you get old enough and you get enough experience, and the player takes another step. And it’s fun to see.”

(Top photo: Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)





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