Curtis McKenzie flew under the radar during his years at the University of Miami (Ohio). He was relied on as a bottom six grinder, and didn't get many opportunities to produce. That has all changed recently, however, as he gelled early and often with Travis Morin and Colton Sceviour on the Texas Stars. He's earned himself consistent top line minutes and was honored as the AHL's Rookie of the Month in December.
I recently asked Stephen Meserve from Hundred Degree Hockey to provide some of his thoughts on 23-year-old's young career.
What were you expecting when Curtis McKenzie came over from college? He always flew under the radar, especially with Reilly Smith playing for the same school.
I didn't honestly know what to expect from McKenzie when he started. Based on how he came out during his amateur tryout, I thought he was going to play a bottom six role maybe with some scoring upside. When I previewed likely ATOs, McKenzie was somewhat of an afterthought. His first game action was on the third line with Luke Gazdic and Toby Petersen, which sort of cemented my thoughts. He played out the rest of the regular season in some sort of bottom six role.
He had one really good fight that endeared him to the CPC crowd at the end of the season.
Was it obvious from the start that he was going to be this successful?
It wasn't obvious at the end of last season. It became obvious at the start of this season. It's tough to say how much of his success is based on being teamed with Morin and Sceviour from the start. However, he wouldn't still be there if he weren't having success. Texas has plenty of solid wingers to slot in there and collect points. He's shown a nose for the net that's been excellent for Texas all season. He was a big time scorer in Penticton, so maybe it shouldn't have been as surprising as it was.
What are his biggest strengths?
You hear it a lot about older college players but I think McKenzie has maturity in his game. Yes, he has scoring touch, nice passing and a feisty side, but he also has a calmer demeanor on the ice thanks to many years in the NCAA. He'll turn 23 next month, older than many rookies in the league, and that's a bonus as far as his game goes.
What does he need to improve on the most?
If anything, probably overall defensive game. Also he needs to get into every game situation. Currently he is not used on the PK, which is a key situation for players to be comfortable in for breaking into the NHL (in my opinion).
How did that chemistry with Sceviour and Morin come about so quickly? Is it because Curtis is a malleable and smart player, or is it more that he's playing with two veteran scorers who know their way around the league?
They play in all sorts of situations together. The time on the power play has definitely helped his overall confidence and numbers. He had three PPGs onthe season before his first even-strength tally. I think it's a combination of both his intelligence and maturity and the overall skill of the line.
How do you project him as a prospect in the Dallas Stars' system? Has your opinion of him changed recently?
I thought the same of him as I had before until recently. His December gave me thoughts that he might be an Alex Chiasson type player in terms of the ability to jump into the top six with some nice scoring touch. This is completely out of the blue, but I could totally see Benn-Seguin-McKenzie working in the future as an upgraded Sceviour-Morin-McKenzie.
Is he trusted in all situations or has he been a very sheltered rookie?
Trusted on the PP from the beginning and obviously gets all the matchups with the top line. He has gotten no PK time though. We don't have zone starts or even ice time in the AHL, so I can't be more specific than that.
As he looked good playing with other linemates at any point this season or has he only played with Morin and Sceviour? Could this be concerning (a bit how Alex Chiasson tailed off a bit after Ray Whitney lost a step)?
He's only played on that top line. Either Sceviour or Morin has been with him pretty much every night. Players like Chris Mueller or Scott Glennie have slotted in with him if either of those are missing. It could be a concern, yes, but I think that he can generate without them. I don't think that he could lead a line quite, but I think that with reasonable quality linemates, he could be trusted to produce.
Could he possibly be a long term offensive solution for the Stars?
I think that he could be counted on to provide secondary scoring no question. I think that the rest is up to him in terms of his ceiling. Coach Desjardins saw something in him that the NCAA level did not and put it to work from day one. Like I said above, I don't think it's completely out of the question that he could play on a top line in the NHL someday.
Things are looking great for McKenzie and if he continues to produce the way he has been, he'll be getting more than just a cup of coffee at the American Airlines Center sooner than just about everyone believed.
Big thanks to Stephen for taking the time to answer some questions with some really great and insightful answers. Be sure to check out Hundred Degree Hockey (linked above) regularly for all of your Texas Stars needs.