The Buffalo Sabres should move Tyler Ennis to the wing next season.
If you'd like to immediately argue that point, as I'm sure some of you do, please, skip ahead to the comments and rant. However, if you'd like to understand exactly why that's a good idea for the future of the franchise, then please, read on, then rant in the comments.
Last season, Ennis was the team's de facto #2 center, behind undisputed current #1 centerman Cody Hodgson. It was a result of his incredible finish to the 2012 season, and seeing as how there weren't any other real candidates for that position, Ennis stayed there most of the season.
However, if the Sabres want to be a true Stanley Cup contender two, three, or four years down the road, they need to move Ennis to the wing to make room for the centers of the future that can make that dream a reality. Let's run down exactly why there's a future logjam at the pivot position, and why Ennis doesn't belong.
Cody Hodgson is the current #1 center, and he's likely the team's future #1 center as well. He showed improvement last season in his offensive production and conditioning, and another offseason training with Scary Gary Roberts should help in both of those areas. However, Hodgson was average at best and abysmal at worst in his own zone last year, and needs to improve significantly in that area to become a true, respected #1 center. A full offseason & training camp with Ron Rolston and Joe Sacco should be able to help with that, as will further commitment from Hodgson himself. At age 23, Hodgson has his best years still ahead of him, and you have to hope (as a fan) that he can turn his defensive game around and realize his full potential as a possible #1 center down the road.
Mikhail Grigorenko is another guy with #1/#2 center potential a few years down the line, and at age 19, he still has a very bright future in the NHL. With the team's full rebuild under way combined with the fact that we know Grigorenko will be in Buffalo all season, there's no reason not to give him prime minutes with good players, not five minutes with John Scott. But then again, I'm not the coach, so he'll probably be rooming with Patrick Kaleta on the road or something.
So Grigorenko and Hodgson are the hopeful #1/#2 centers of the future, barring a top 3 pick in the 2014 draft. Looking a bit further in to the future, the Sabres have a number of #3/#4 centerman in the system, such as Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson and Justin Kea, not to mention the established guys they've already got, such as Steve Ott and Kevin Porter.
So why exactly, aside from elbow room, is Ennis the odd man out? He has performed better in the middle than on the wing - the move back to center was what kicked off his fantastic run with Drew Stafford and Marcus Foligno two years ago. He finished third on the team in points last year, with 10 goals and 21 assists. He's got super-quick hands and some nice playmaking ability. So why boot him back to wing?
If the Sabres are totally committed to this rebuild, they need to hitch their wagon to the guys with the highest upside, and count on them to realize that potential. Out of Cody Hodgson, Mikhail Grigorenko, and Tyler Ennis (their potential top 3 guys) all three men share the same qualities. Excellent offensive potential, bad as of now on defense and not great at faceoffs. So out of those three players who all share similar traits, who has the highest upside at their best trait - offense? Hodgson and Grigorenko, hands down.
So why give Ennis top six minutes rather than give them to your future top six (hopeful) stars? The only reason would be that Ron Rolston doesn't think that Grigorenko is ready to handle that responsibility. Otherwise, it makes no sense to jeopardize the future of your franchise by playing Ennis over the young Russian at center.
Ennis is 23, same as Hodgson and four years older than Grigorenko. He's generously listed at 5'9'' - name another Cup contender that has a 5'9'' center in their top six? He's very poor in the dot, winning only 41.9% of his faceoffs. He's got a worse shot than Hodgson and is an inferior playmaker to Grigorenko. I'm not saying he's a bad player, only that two other similarly talented centers have a higher ceiling than he does and are more physically gifted. So as much as some fans may not like it, if the Sabres are truly going all-in on this rebuild, Ennis has no reason to be in a top-6 center position next season.