Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Good things in small packages

What Toby Enstrom lacks in size, he makes up for in smart play

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Gather any of the National Hockey League's coaches and general managers together in a laboratory to build the perfect defenceman and the resulting prototype would feature two main characteristics:

1. He would stand about 6-4, weigh around 225 pounds and would have the kind of Mr. Universe physique which would make Georges St-Pierre look positively flabby.

2. He would possess a win-at-all-costs personality that, at various occasions, would have him wilfully dropping to block a shot with his face or gleefully rattling an opponent's molars with a crushing hit into the boards.

All of which, in a roundabout way, brings us to a discussion about Winnipeg Jets defenceman Toby Enstrom...

Yes, in today's big-boy NHL game where the battle for every inch of ice is waged by some of the largest homo sapiens ever to lace up skates, it would seem there would be no place for a player like Enstrom -- who is very generously listed as 5-10 in the Jets' media guide and has all the ferocity of a Walmart greeter.

'My game doesn't have a lot to do with winning battles in the corner. You can still be in position. If you read the play, if you try to stay one step ahead, that can solve a lot of problems out there'

And yet while there is forever a size vs. skill debate when it comes to Enstrom, the 29-year-old defenceman is now into his seventh year with the Jets/Atlanta Thrashers franchise, has 438 NHL games to his credit and parlayed his play into a hefty contract of $5.75 million -- which just so happens to make him the highest-paid Jet.

So, how has the Jets' little big man -- an eighth-round draft pick who didn't cross the pond until he was 22 and had won a couple of Swedish Elite League championships -- managed to find a place among NHL giants?

"Honestly, I don't really have a good answer for you," said Enstrom with a shrug after practice Thursday. "When I first came over, I didn't know what to expect. I knew this was the best league in the world.

"All my teammates back home, my parents told me to stick with it when I got over here. It's worked out well. I'm not the biggest guy on the ice, but I just try to do the stuff I'm good at."

It's here where the Enstrom critics will point to his physical limitations, namely his inability to out-muscle a big forward out front or to come out of the corner first with the puck. But those who know him well point to the little things Enstrom does well, the stuff that doesn't always jump out, which make him so effective.

"His other skills take over for him not being 6-4, 230 pounds," said assistant coach Charlie Huddy. "It's the way he reads the game. And he understands, because he's been in the game long enough, how to compensate for his lack of size to be able to defend the guys.

"He's a good player. I didn't see him very often when he was in Atlanta because I was working in Edmonton and we didn't play them much. But you pick those guys out when you play against them, the guys with skill, with the skating ability and vision.

"His skating ability allows him to get back to the puck, pivot and turn quickly and then find a guy in the middle of the ice. He's a good, solid player that you can rely on. We use him against a lot of No. 1 lines. Does he match up size-wise with guys like (St. Louis Blues' centre David) Backes and big forwards like that? No. But his other skills take over."

A suggestion from Zach Bogosian -- likely Enstrom's defence partner for tonight's match-up with the Florida Panthers -- for all those who want to point out the Swede's limitations: Try to pay attention to the little things he does well, particularly as he is regularly matched up against top lines, like simply reading a play or making an effective breakout pass.

"He's a quiet guy and he plays the game quietly," said Bogosian. "But with his teammates, the stuff that he does doesn't go unnoticed.

"He's really smart, he's a good skater, he's really competitive, a quiet competitor. Being a smaller guy, he really uses that to his advantage, whether it's making a read or making a play. When you're a smaller guy, sometimes you can get bumped around out there. But he has a head for the game where he tries not to put himself in dangerous areas and he makes the right plays at the right time.

"A lot of people look at the stats that go on a scoresheet, but if you just watch his game... it's the way he thinks the game and does the little things that might not show up on a scoresheet but are for the greater good of the team. It's been like that since I played with him."

But if Jets' fans are left wanting more from Enstrom -- remember, he was tied for the scoring lead among NHL defencemen last February before being injured -- they're not alone. As quiet as his game is, he has occasionally flashed the offensive gifts that has his own coaches pleading with him to shoot more.

And there seem to be more nights this season, against Western Conference rivals in particular, where for all his smarts and skills, his diminutive stature works against him. So, for as much as players benefit from playing with him -- hello, Dustin Byfuglien -- the Enstrom-Bogosian pairing has been effective in the past because of the blend of their two games.

"I want to play better, I want to be better. I want to help the team win every night," said Enstrom. "I just feel overall in my game I can play better, I can be better and help the team in any way I can. If it comes down to blocking shots or whatever it is, whatever I can bring to the table.

"My game doesn't have a lot to do with winning battles in the corner. You can still be in position. If you read the play, if you try to stay one step ahead, that can solve a lot of problems out there."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 20, 2013 C2

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