Drafted in the sixth round (159th overall), left wing Curtis McKenzie has flown under the radar due in large part to the emergence of his former teammate Reilly Smith. McKenzie shouldn't be looked over, however, since he is the type of player who fits the desired identity of the Dallas Stars moving forward.
Over the last couple of years, the Stars have been trying to change their identity in order to become a stronger and faster team who can wear opponents down and outwork them when games are on the line. This new attitude has shown through in recent drafts as GM Joe Nieuwendyk has picked the likes of Jamieson Oleksiak, Radek Faksa, Gemel Smith, Alex Chiasson, and a glut of other high energy, high power type players.
While much less highly touted and probably more of a project, Curtis McKenzie fits this bill perfectly. Coming out of Penticton of the BCHL, he was known for being a hard worker and scouts praised his drive and competitiveness game in and game out. While he probably doesn't have the ceiling of the other picks mentioned above in terms of skill, McKenzie has the ability to work his way past that.
His journey to becoming an NHL prospect began in his second year with Penticton in the 2008-09 season when he broke out for 30 goals and 34 assists to go along with 90 penalty minutes in 53 games. Like many young players, it took him a year to get adjusted to the new level he was playing in and was able to turn hard work into results once he was comfortable.
This breakout year earned Curtis a selection in the NHL Entry draft and the opportunity to build on his recent success. Opting to go the college route instead of the WHL, he committed to the University Of Miami (OH) and immediately showed everyone that he had a lot of potential.
In his freshman season at Miami of Ohio, Curtis McKenzie scored 27 points (6 goals, 21 assists) in 42 games, very solid numbers for a freshman by all accounts. He was praised for his commitment to the game and his ability to work hard every day. He created offense by using his size and strength along the boards to create space for himself and his teammates, consistently outworking opponents. This gritty no-quit attitude earned him playing time in all situations.
Unfortunately, McKenzie took a bit of a step back offensively the next two years, putting up 12 points in 37 games as a sophomore and then 17 in 40 as a junior. While his work ethic and commitment were questioned at times over the course of those two years, he remained a trusted defensive forward and penalty killer for the Redhawks which shows through his 10 +/- rating in his junior year and the fact that he’s +20 for his career.
In his sophomore and junior seasons, Curtis McKenzie established himself as an extremely responsible defensive forward who could take care of business in his own end and contribute at the same time. Part of the slide in his production can be attributed to him being bumped down the lineup and put into more of a checking role; he’s counted on to kill penalties and grind it out on the forecheck in order to create time and space for his teammates, so he’s not necessarily the recipient of a lot of scoring chances, but he has also shown that he can put the puck in the net when needed.
This year has been a different and much more positive story for McKenzie. So far he has reemerged offensively and has shown that he is much more than just a solid two-way player. He’s registered 13 points in 18 games so far this season and has been a big contributor to the Miami Redhawks, who currently sit at No. 6 in the nation.
While most prospects leave the NCAA after their sophomore or junior years, McKenzie elected to stay for his senior year which seems to have been the right choice. After two somewhat forgettable years after a great freshman season, it is important for him to show that he’s still the type of player that has a shot to contribute at the pro level down the road; his play so far this year have begun to do that. It seems as though the work ethic he was so highly praised for in Penticton and his freshman year has reemerged and now it is just a matter of bringing it on a nightly basis.
If McKenzie can keep his work ethic up he’ll continue putting up points while being a solid all-around player and key contributor to a Redhawks team which is poised to do some damage in the tournament this year. What sets McKenzie apart from other prospects is how he became a prospect. He was never lauded for having world-beating skill and probably never will, but he was drafted because he has the heart and the competitive edge to be successful. It’s a terribly overused cliché in sports, but it’s true that hard work beats skill every day of the week; and that’s the area in which McKenzie excels.