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Sunday, January 04, 2015

Rewarded for his Perseverance: The Story of Deryk Engelland's Season and Hockey Career

TJ Brodie. Deryk Engelland. Mark Giordano.

It's certainly a weird sight to see Engelland's name sandwiched in-between that of Brodie and Giordano. The only time Calgary's depth chart on the blue-line looks like that is when you list the names in alphabetical order.

But there is one other place where those three names come in that order. That's in the Flames dressing room where Engelland's stall is what separates the stalls belonging to Calgary's prolific top defence pairing.

It was here where a few days ago, I sat down with the personable defenceman one-on-one to discuss his pro hockey career so far, the adjustments faced this season in coming to a new team and new conference and in particular, his improved play in recent weeks.

Of course, the place to start would be the much criticized contract he signed on July 1 in which the unrestricted free agent signed a three-year/$8.7 million deal with the Flames.


Looking Back on July 1

"It was my first time ever (being a UFA) so it was a little nerve-wracking going into it," recalls Engelland. "The day of the signing, a couple hours felt like all day."

When the 32-year-old player went from an annual salary of $575,000 in 2013-14 to $3,000,000 for this season, it not only raised eyebrows league-wide but also raised the ire of a skeptical Flames fan base.

"It still hasn't completely sunk in," says Engelland of his big pay day. "I wasn't expecting that, going off what guys got in the years before. It was a little bit more than I thought but it just shows how much they wanted me and they wanted to make the decision very easy."

Last summer saw the NHL introduce a change to the UFA courting process, giving teams permission to contact players and vice versa during the week prior to July 1. Calgary wasted little time in letting Engelland know that they were interested in his services.

"I talked to Brian (Burke), Bob (Hartley) and Brad (Treliving) -- all within the first day of being able to talk to them," Engelland says. "To have all three of them call you shows that they have some interest in you and what they had to say to me and what they wanted from me, I thought it was a good fit."

Engelland takes a lot of heat for the value of the contract although if you think about it, it's not necessarily fair. He didn't offer the contract, he merely accepted it. Regardless, he knows there will be increased scrutiny on him this year as a result.

"Personally, when I have a bad game, it doesn't matter if I'm on this contract or making league minimum like last year, but it definitely puts some pressure on you," says Engelland. "Getting that raise, you want to raise your ability too but my style of game is what got me here and got me that contract so I've got to stick to that and just go out and try to keep pucks out of our net."

While his annual salary suddenly shot up 500 percent, he's still the same player with the Flames this fall as he was playing for Pittsburgh last spring.

"It never hurts to get a point here or there but that's not what I'm here for, that's not what they brought me in for, we have four guys that are doing a pretty good job of that," says Engelland, who is 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds. "My role is to bring that physical presence and toughness. We have a young, small team so just give them a little more room and confidence out there that nobody is going to take liberties on them."


New Team, New Coach, New System

When you've been in the same organization as long as Engelland had been -- seven years with the Penguins, there is going to be an adjustment period when you move on. It's unavoidable.

There's adapting to a new coach, a new defensive system and there's also the switch in conference from the East to the West.

"From day one, it's been a lot different. Probably the biggest change for me personally is the way we play rushes," says Engelland. "We have a lot of pressure from our forwards coming back. As defencemen, we back in and let them do the work. In Pittsburgh, we were playing the rush early and trying to create turnovers at the blueline."

He says it has taken some time to adjust but now he's feeling way more confident and at ease in Hartley's system.

"For me -- midway through the season now, I'm not thinking about what I'm supposed to be doing, it's just reaction. It's taken a little bit of time but I'm feeling more comfortable with it."


Playing His Best Hockey of the Year

Asked if he's playing his best hockey of the season right now, Engelland responds without hesitation.

"For sure, 100 percent," he says. "I felt like for the first 20 games, I played in the defensive zone the whole game, every game. Now, we're spending a little more time in their zone and less in ours and that's exactly what you want. To wear teams down by playing in their end and if Raffi (Diaz) and I can continue to do that, that's a good game for us."

Conventional statistics would back up Engelland too. In the last 10 games, he's only been on the ice for two even-strength goals against and both of those could be excusable given the circumstances.

For the first one, I did not have to remind him of when it was nor did I have to inform him that at the time of our conversation, it had been the only even-strength goal-against him in the last few weeks. He was well aware and he knew precisely what play it came on. It was on the first shot of the game by the Kings in the last game before Christmas -- a soft wrister from Trevor Lewis from the sideboards, viewed universally by anyone not in the Flames dressing room as an awful goal by Hiller, who simply didn't look ready and missed it with his trapper.

"Oh, I know exactly the goal that we were on for. It was kind of a lucky goal, I guess, a shot from a ways out that just dropped a foot on Hillsy. You take that out of there and it's been a pretty good stretch."

The only other recent even-strength goal against came in the last game against the New York Islanders. While John Tavares getting around Engelland before scoring on Hiller is what you saw on the replay, there's more to it. The back story is Diaz had iced the puck with just over seven minutes left in a game that was 1-0 at the time for New York. At that point, three Flames had been on the ice for a minute already with Engelland at 1:47 the most weary. Meanwhile, Tavares was just 16 seconds into his shift.

As the story goes, Hartley chose not to call his timeout, the exhausted Flames ended up under pressure once again when Matt Stajan lost the face-off and 21 seconds later, it was 2-0 for the Islanders as a bagged Engelland staggered his way slowly to the bench.

Other than those two goals -- and two other goals against that came while on the penalty kill in that game in LA, Engelland has put up a zero for goals against in any type of situation in eight of the last 10 games.

"It's still the game of hockey, it's nothing complicated but there's always adjustments to be made," says Hartley about Engelland's season so far. "Plus, at the same time, you have to feel it. It's not only the X's and O's part, it's also the group and where do you fit in that group and I think Engy right now is giving us some good minutes. He feels good. He has a nice role and I think he's playing great for us."


The More Ice Time, The Better

Asked to describe a successful night at the rink, Engelland sums it up this way:

"Obviously, zero goals against in all situations. Physical when I can be, without getting caught or out of position. Block shots when I can and just a good first pass, get it up to our forwards so they can go to work. If I can get through a game doing all that, it's a good game."

During the last 10 games, Engelland's plus-3 is tied with Johnny Gaudreau for second-best on the team behind Jiri Hudler's plus-7. For a third pairing defenceman, if you're expecting better than that, you're probably expecting too much.

Engelland says it's no coincidence that his increased ice time over this period has correlated to his improved play. Where with Hartley, improved play leads to players getting more ice time. For Engelland, more ice time leads to improved play.  It's the classic 'chicken and the egg' scenario.

"Playing 14 or 15 minutes or even more is easier than playing nine or 10, you just stay in the game, you're more focused and you're just rolling," says Engelland. "When you're going every third or fourth shift, you're not thinking about it, you're just making plays. You stay fresh and I find it a lot easier to stay sharp."

Asked if Engelland has been playing his best hockey, Hartley answers with an emphatic "yes" while adding there's more to his value to the team than meets the eye.

"He's also a great leader, who is growing in our organization and he feels good about it," says Hartley. "Very simple guy, very easy-going guy. Works hard everywhere -- in the gym, on the ice in practice, in games. He's a great part of our team because he's a guy that we can count on. He's no maintenance. Whenever you sit with him, you sit with a pro. He wants his game to be at the top." 


The Long Road to the NHL

Engelland's journey to the NHL was a long and winding one made up a lot of bus rides. 

Born in Edmonton and having played four years of junior hockey with Moose Jaw in the Western Hockey League, Engelland was drafted by New Jersey in the sixth round of the 2000 NHL Draft.

However, he did not sign with the Devils. New Jersey offered him a contract two years later -- just prior to the deadline for when they had to do so or lose him to free agency and Engelland's agent rejected it.

"Don't know if that worked out great though," Engelland admits, while noting that he has a different agent now.

"At the time, my agent said he didn't think it was the right deal. Obviously, playing in the minors for seven years, you wonder if maybe you should have taken it, but it's all worked out by not taking it. I met my wife, signed with Calgary so some good things have happened."

The first four years Engelland kicked around the minor leagues, much of his time was spent in the ECHL where he suited up for the South Carolina Stingrays, Reading Royals and the Las Vegas Wranglers -- which is when he met his wife Melissa.

Hoping that an opportunity might come up to maybe in Europe, his NHL aspirations got a glimmer of hope when he eventually made it back to the AHL with the Hershey Bears in 2005. It was in Hershey's trip to the Calder Cup final in 2007 that his play caught the attention of the Pittsburgh organization, who signed him the following summer to a contract.

Engelland played close to three more full seasons in the AHL with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins but it was a three-week, nine-game call-up in November 2009 that changed everything.

"That first call-up was a big eye-opener," says Engelland, who thanks to a Brooks Orpik injury early in the game, ended up logging 19:20 in ice time in his NHL debut in Boston. "I played some big games, there were a lot of injuries at the time so I was playing against some top guys and it gave me a lot of confidence. After that, you know you can play there. So that summer, it was OK, if you're going to get to the NHL, this is going to be the year."

Engelland says he will be forever grateful for the support during that time of his wife Melissa, who worked two or three jobs at a time so he could spend his off-season focused on conditioning and pursuing his dream of playing full-time in the NHL. 

"I wouldn't be here without her," he says, with a smile. "Obviously in the AHL, I wasn't making much money back then. So, she worked all summer just to pay for my personal trainer and it ended up working out."


Enjoying the Good Life

While the Engellands still call Las Vegas home in the off-season, Deryk says he's happy to be spending the winter in the same province he was born. He's also got a new No. 1 fan.

The Engellands have a two-and-a-half-year-old son named Cash, who before you ask, is not named that because of their ties to Sin City.

"He's named after Johnny Cash, to make that clear," Engelland says with a grin. "We're both big fans of Johnny Cash. Years before we even thought about having a kid, we had that name picked out."

It's a bit early to know if Cash will be a hockey player like his Dad but Engelland says he is starting to watch the games more intently.

"We've had him out skating twice and he's not too fond of that quite yet but maybe soon," says Engelland. "But he likes coming to the games and he'll watch on TV now so it's interesting him a little bit more."

If Cash has a shred of his Dad's perseverance, I would bet on him spending a lot of time at rinks in the years ahead.


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