Texas Stars coach Willie Desjardins admitted he was surprised by the offensive numbers that rookie forward Curtis McKenzie put up this season. The numbers surprised McKenzie, too.
“I had confidence I could come in and be an impact player, but not at that expectation,” McKenzie said. “I think I exceeded what I was looking for this year, which is good.”
He was better than just good, winning the American Hockey League’s Rookie of the Year award after leading all first year players in scoring with 65 points (27 goals, 38 assists) in 75 games. He ranked ninth among all players in the league in points.
Not bad for a guy who in four years at Miami University (Ohio) registered 80 points (29 goals, 51 assists) in 158 games played.
“I was surprised. I don’t know if he was in the top 100 in the NCAA in scoring. He didn’t put up big points in the NCAA,” said Desjardins. “Last year when he came in (at the end of the season) you could see he was a guy who enjoyed playing the game. He had fun. But I didn’t expect those kinds of numbers.”
It didn’t hurt that McKenzie ended up playing left wing on Texas’ top line with center Travis Morin and right wing Colton Sceviour this season. Morin led the league in scoring and took home the AHL’s MVP honors. Sceviour was the AHL’s top goal scorer until he was called up to Dallas in March.
“They are exceptional players at this level,” McKenzie said. “I just tried to win battles and get them the puck as much as I could.”
The 23-year-old McKenzie, listed at 6-2, 210 pounds, turned out to be a good fit.
“He really complemented that line,” said Desjardins. “They needed a physical player, they needed a guy that was going to the net, so he fit right in with Morin and Sceviour.”
“He stays within himself. He doesn’t try to do too much,” said Morin. “He’s a hardworking kid and he did a great job working down low all year. He did a lot of the dirty work for me and Scevs when Scevs was here. With [Brendan Ranford] on our line now he still goes to the front of the net, he’s there on the power play, he goes into the corner and hits. He’s a physical presence on our line and he isn’t afraid to stand up for guys and drop the gloves if he has to. He has good enough hands to make plays and good enough speed to beat guys and he’s got a good shot.”
The British Columbia native never scored more than one goal in a game during his four years of college hockey, but he had one hat trick and two other multi-goal games in his first full professional season.
“I thought I could eventually get to be a top six guy, but I didn’t think it would be right away,” McKenzie said. “I got an opportunity to play with Morin and Sceviour and that helped me a lot. I thought I was going to have to grind it out a bit on the bottom six and work my way up.”
The Dallas Stars drafted McKenzie in the sixth round (159th overall) in the 2009 NHL Draft out of the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League. He spent those four years at Miami, and when his senior campaign came to an end he joined the Texas Stars late last season, and he believes that helped set the stage for his stellar 2013-14 campaign.
“That was huge for my development, I think,” he said. “Just being here, even though I wasn’t playing a lot, being around the guys, getting a taste of the American League and what it takes to play here, I incorporated a lot of that into my summer training. I knew what I had to improve and what I had to do to become an impact player at this level.”
And he knows there will need to be more improvements to make it to the next level. McKenzie has watched the Dallas Stars, and knows that speed is the name of the game with the parent club. That’s an area he wants to focus on this offseason, along with other parts of his game.
“My foot speed and speed overall is something I will be working on this summer because it’s another jump up there for the speed,” McKenzie said. “Work on scoring and everything I can this summer. I’ll be working with a skills coach, so that should help.”
McKenzie’s already taken a big step forward in his development this season, a step that nobody really saw coming.
“Being voted the Rookie of the Year says a lot for him,” said Desjardins. “He’s put up lots of points, but he is more than that. He is a physical player and he brings lots of energy. He’s a guy that always wants to get better. He is always looking for ways to improve. It’s great that he had the year he had.”
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