With the 2018-19 hockey season coming to an official close, signing season is now upon us. Free agents, both unrestricted and restricted alike, are hoping their individual performances throughout this past season were exceptional enough to earn a new contract with a team. Whether a one-year bridge contract or a long-term deal, or re-signing with a club or moving on to a different one, players are praying to put pen to paper and continue their careers playing the game they love.
That’s the situation that sixth-year Stars forward Curtis McKenzie finds himself in.
McKenzie is one of 11 unrestricted free agents in the Stars organization and finds himself in need of a new contract. On a list that includes Antoine Roussel, Dan Hamhuis, and Greg Pateryn, I argue that re-signing the 27-year-old winger should be a top priority for general manager Jim Nill this offseason.
A Successful Six Stars Years
Notorious for his hard-nosed style of play, McKenzie plays a physical brand of hockey that involves finishing his checks, engaging in puck battles, and, yes, dropping the gloves every once in a while. A self-professed “Muck Bro,” McKenzie maintains his “mucker” style of play while also putting up some points.
After signing his first NHL entry-level contract ahead of the 2013-14 season, the 2009 sixth-round pick reported to the Texas Stars for his first pro season and made an impact right away. McKenzie finished his rookie season in Texas with 65 points (27 goals and 38 assists) in 75 games, finishing second on the team in goals, assists, and points. The winger also helped the Stars to the franchise’s first Calder Cup trophy, notching three goals and 11 helpers in 21 playoff games and finishing with the fifth-most points on the Stars roster.
McKenzie’s successful rookie year earned him a call-up to Dallas during his sophomore season in 2014-15. While he only recorded five points (four goals, one assist), the forward was impactful enough to stick around Dallas for 36 games and earned another two-year deal for his efforts.
During the 2015-16 season, the fourth-liner only appeared in four games in the NHL with Dallas but played a big role in Austin with the Texas Stars. McKenzie finished first on the team in goal scoring (21) and was second in points (55) despite only playing 61 games of the season.
Once more in a contract year, McKenzie earned himself a full-time spot on the Dallas Stars during the 2016-17 season. He dressed in 53 games with the Stars and produced a respectable 16 points as an NHL rookie. Once more, the “Muck Bro” earned himself a one-year deal.
Returning as a full-time member in Texas this past season, McKenzie was named the team’s captain one month into the season. Still showing he’s in prime form, the forward finished first in goals scored (25) and second in points (48) in just 51 games during the regular season, and was huge in the team’s most recent Calder Cup run, finishing with an AHL postseason-leading 11 goals and 20 points.
While he hasn’t been able to secure a permanent spot on the Dallas Stars roster, McKenzie has proven to be a key piece of the Texas Stars. In his five seasons in the AHL, he has appeared in 275 contests and has notched an impressive 228 points (98 goals, 130 assists).
The Pros and Cons of Re-signing the McKenzie
While McKenzie has put up some impressive numbers during his AHL career, it’s more of the immeasurable things that will earn him another contract. He provides plenty of leadership and tenacity to the Texas Stars roster.
“We felt that Curtis, with his development as a young player, and an NHL player, that wearing the ‘C’ would be a really good motivational tool for him to keep on doing what he’s doing. He’s come down here with a great attitude. He’s driving the bus every game.” – Texas head coach Derek Laxdal
As captain of the Texas team, McKenzie has proven that he plays a key role both on an off the ice. He’s your prototypical character guy. His attitude on and off the ice is infectious. He’s the guy you want to go to battle with every night. He sticks up for teammates, and his team can always count on him to leave it all on the ice every single game.
Another pro for re-signing the Star is the affordability. While his postseason play may have earned him a raise, Nill could still probably lock the left wing up for less than a million dollars a season.
The forward’s biggest problem is that he’s coming along just a little too late. Now at 27 years old, McKenzie is running out of time, and the Stars (and the NHL) are trying to get younger.
Through six seasons in the Stars organization, the winger has failed to secure a full-time roster spot and has instead settled into more of a depth role player on the team. While he’s proven he can hold his own in the NHL, his numbers are nowhere near the production he’s had with the Texas Stars.
With a decent sample size of exactly 100 games played on NHL ice, McKenzie has only managed 23 points (10 goals and 13 assists) in his up-and-down stints with the Dallas Stars. One number he has excelled at, however, is penalty minutes. The forward has more penalty minutes than games played at 136 PIMs. In the AHL, it’s much of the same at 420 PIMs in 275 games.
The scrappy Stars forward’s physical brand of hockey has gotten him into a good amount of trouble. While many of these minutes are gained from five-minute fighting majors—albeit, a character move—it’s tough to be an impactful player for your team when you’re not on the ice.
But McKenzie’s physical play is also probably his biggest attribute. If the feisty forward can be a little smarter and safer about his play on the ice, he could bring the much-needed spark that Dallas needs.
The Bottom Line
Now an unrestricted free agent, Nill needs to make the decision on whether or not to re-sign the fiery forward. If it were up to me, I’d give McKenzie another chance.
Sure, the Stars have an identical left wing in Antoine Roussel, who plays the game in a very similar way. However, the French forward is coming off his worst campaign since his 2012-13 rookie year, recording a career-low five goals and a lowly 12 helpers for a grand total of 17 points in 73 games. With Roussel an unrestricted free agent who is probably seeking a raise, McKenzie presents himself as the more affordable and salary-cap economical option for Nill and the Stars.
With McKenzie demanding a much lower $700,000 a season, Nill could let Roussel walk and McKenzie could easily step in and fill the role and at a much more affordable, discounted rate. McKenzie could re-sign with Dallas on a one or two-year deal at somewhere around $700,000 to one million per season and offer some depth and tenacity as a bottom two left wing.
At worst, the captain of the Texas Stars could return to AHL ice next season and continue doing what he’s been doing. McKenzie is a very good AHL player and a huge factor in the Texas Stars’ success. Even if he can’t crack a spot on the Dallas roster, in my opinion, he’s earned another contract for the team.
If worse comes to worse, McKenzie can continue to be the “character guy” down in Texas. That’s just as important of a role as your first-line center if you ask me. He’ll provide the leadership to the young Stars’ farm team that will help the prospective NHLers develop into Dallas Stars. That is, of course, if he’s not one himself next season.