Throughout their 25-year history, the Chicago Wolves have tried to load up their roster with as many veterans as possible to make a run at the Calder Cup. Forward Curtis McKenzie fits that mold and his experience and leadership has the Wolves in position to win their third straight Central Division crown.
Veteran’s Track Record Speaks for Itself
McKenzie has the resume and has produced his entire career. He broke onto the scene during the 2013-14 season when he became a big part of the Texas Stars’ Calder Cup victory. He led all AHL rookies with 38 assists and 65 points in the regular season and had 11 assists during the playoffs, the most for a rookie. In addition to being a Calder Cup Champion, he also won the Red Garrett Memorial Award as the league’s top rookie.
Last season, McKenzie was captain of the Stars who fell to the Toronto Marlies in Game 7 of the Calder Cup Final. In his 223 AHL games before coming to Chicago, McKenzie scored 82 goals and 190 points. He has also played 99 career NHL games with the Dallas Stars.
He told me after a recent home win that he has really enjoyed taking on a leadership role with a rather young team this season.
“It’s fun being with a young team and all the youth energy they bring to the rink,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to go on some runs with Texas. I’ll just do what I can, down the stretch, to help the team.”
McKenzie, a veteran of 52 AHL playoff games, is excited to see what the Wolves can do this spring, but he knows there is plenty of work left to do.
“I think we keep getting better throughout the year,” he added. “That was something our team did and we peaked at the right time in the playoffs. The youth here makes it really fun. We had an older team in Texas with guys who were doing their jobs. But the skill and talent we have on this team and the potential that these guys have is unbelievable. We just have to make sure we peak at the right time.”
Roles Have Changed in Jump from Chicago to Texas
McKenzie has taken on a different role since joining the Wolves. In Texas, he was expected to be one of the offensive leaders. That is not necessarily the case in Chicago with players like Daniel Carr, Brooks Macek, Brandon Pirri and Gage Quinney providing the firepower for much of the season.
This has allowed McKenzie to show off this versatility and his willingness to get dirty on the ice. He plays all facets of the game and has put in time on the power play and penalty kill. He is trusted with key shifts in both the offensive and defensives zones all while taking a bit of pleasure in getting under the skin of his opponents.
“I try to do everything, anywhere I can help contribute and I’ve had success at it,” he said. “I think my whole life I’ve had the hard-nosed game. It helps me, playing with an edge, want to be out there and get the puck and get it to our guys.”
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It took some time for McKenzie to adjust to his new role. He started the season off with a goal and six assists in the team’s first six games. He then went on to score six goals and 20 points over the next 42 games, which was far below his career 0.85 points per game average.
“Around the net, it is starting to come back a bit,” McKenzie said of his recent play. “I was struggling earlier in the year with it, but I just have to keep working at it and, hopefully, it keeps coming.”
Things have improved for McKenzie over the past month. Since Feb. 9, he has four goals and 12 points in 12 games.
A Mutual Admiration Between Player and Coach
Head coach Rocky Thompson is a huge fan of McKenzie and is proud of how hard he has worked to find his offensive game again, late in the season.
“A ton,” Thompson replied when asked how much McKenzie brings to this team. “His leadership, his experience and his stick-to-itiveness. He was fighting for a bit there. His production, to his standards, wasn’t where it has been in the past, but he’s been working really hard at it.
“He’s been putting in a lot of time after practice. (Assistant coach) Chris Dennis has been working with him on skills stuff and he’s starting to feel good about his game again. When you start to get confidence – and I think confidence always comes from an understanding of what needs to be done; a good day’s work – then you start to feel better about yourself and things begin to snowball in the right direction. He’s doing it and he’s being rewarded.”
McKenzie has enjoyed his first season, not only because of the youth and excitement in the locker room but also because of Thompson. The former defenseman and veteran of 556 career AHL games, is in his second season behind the Chicago bench. He has been a great fit with the Wolves and the results speak for themselves.
“It’s great playing for him,” McKenzie said of Thompson. “You can tell what kind of player he was when you play for him because he really cares about the team. Everything is about the team with him. But, at the same time, he’ll push guys.
He’s been awesome with us, pushing us when he can and knowing what to do. I think that’s helped, not only with winning games but also with how much some of these guys have improved throughout the year.”
The Wolves enter this weekend tied for first place in the AHL’s Central Division with 18 games left on the schedule. If Chicago is going to go deep into the Calder Cup playoffs this spring, you can bet McKenzie will be a big part of it.