Evan McEneny is one of my favourite Canucks prospects; not because he’s the most talented or most likely to succeed, but because of how far he came in one single season. For McEneny, the difference between the beginning and end of the 2016-17 season is astronomical, no matter how you look at it. The way the team and fans perceived him, and the way he was handled by the Utica coaching staff, has done a complete 180 degree turn. All but forgotten last off-season, he is now rightfully in consideration to be the first injury-based call up on defence for the Canucks this season.
If it weren’t for the highly impressive influx of talented prospects that I discussed in the Carcone article, McEneny would surely be a top ten prospect for the Canucks at this juncture. As it is, he sits at 14th, but believe me when I say that 14th this year comes with a whole lot more positivity that it did in previous years.
We’ve changed the qualifications up just a little bit this year. Being under the age of 25 is still mandatory (as of the coming September 15th), but instead of Calder Trophy rules, we’re just requiring players to have played less than 25 games in the NHL (essentially ignoring the Calder Trophy’s rule about playing more than six games in multiple seasons).
Graduates from this time last year include Brendan Gaunce, Troy Stecher, and Nikita Tryamkin, while Anton Rodin is simply too old now, and Jake Virtanen is not being considered solely as a result of his games played.
It’s fairly common knowledge that I’ve been outright obsessed with the Utica Comets for past years, so I don’t think it’s overly immodest to suggest that I saw McEneny’s rise to prominence coming. Even as his point production was just beginning to tick upwards, what really stood out was how Travis Green was using him. By and large, coaches are very reliable evaluators of talent and ability (with the occasional biased exception), and when a coach begins giving a player more and more responsibility, it’s often a good indicator of actual improvement.
Doing weekly posts on the Comets for most of last season that involved me compiling weekly stat reports, it wasn’t just his points that jumped off the page (or the screen, as it were), but his shot numbers. This excerpt comes from February 22nd:
Evan McEneny led all Canucks prospects in points over the past 4 games, with a goal and four assists. He also had a whopping 19 shots, which is just downright ridiculous. This, after putting 14 shots on net last week. McEneny has 15 points in his last 20 games – combined with his shot generation and deployment, this is beyond just a hot streak. McEneny, still just 22 years old, is now officially my darkhorse prospect to actually become something. Keep an eye on him.
Days later, McEneny received his first NHL call up, and debuted shortly thereafter. Though his appearance was aided by the Great Mumps Outbreak of 2017, the reward of a recall was certainly deserved.
The night before McEneny received that recall, I penned a lengthy article on McEneny, and the journey he took last season from obscurity to bona fide prospect. I’d suggest giving that a look over if you want an in depth look, since it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to rehash it. Here are the highlights.
McEneny was signed during the post-draft free agency window as an 18-year old by Mike Gillis in 2012. Projected as a 2nd or 3rd round pick prior to his draft season, McEneny spent the entire campaign dealing with injuries and limited to just two games. After impressing as an invite at development camp, Gillis brought McEneny into the fold.
His next three seasons as a member of the Kitchener Rangers and Kingston Frontenacs in the OHL showed steady improvement, and, still on his ELC with the Canucks, he made the move to professional hockey in 2015-16. He sustained an injury early on, and missed roughly half the season. When he returned, he produced at a rate of 0.69 points per game (25 points in 36 games) as a rookie in the ECHL.
McEneny started 2016-17 as a member of the Comets, but struggled to stay in the lineup with consistency. Over the course of the first half of the season, he shed weight and got himself into better shape. The results were undeniable, and as his production and shot generation skyrocketed, he began to take over in all situations.
By the three-quarter mark of the season, McEneny had bumped Jordan Subban and Colby Robak off the top power play unit, was almost always a first-over-the-boards penalty killer, and was receiving the lion’s share of even strength ice time.
The results of the season boosted McEneny’s likelihood of succeeding at the NHL level, jumping up to a pGPS expected success rate of 23%, which is all the more impressive given how unproductive the first third of his season was (pGPS is only taking into account his season-ending statistics). Some of McEneny’s 2016-17 comparables are Francois Beauchemin, Jyrki Lumme, and Nick Holden.
His most recent rate is a large jump up from the one based on his ECHL season prior (not pictured in the graph below), largely because it doesn’t matter how much an ECHL player produces, there are just so many similar players that never went on to do anything in the NHL.
The Canucks rewarded McEneny’s development with a two-year contract extension, as his Entry Level Contract was set to expire at the end of June. The additions of Michael Del Zotto and Patrick Wiercioch will make it very difficult for McEneny to stick with the Canucks out of training camp. Nothing is set in stone yet, but given the construction of the roster, I think it likely that the Canucks carry 14 forwards and seven defencemen, limiting the amount of spots available for players in his position.
He also has Olli Juolevi to contend with, as the 19-year old Finn will be in NHL-or-bust territory. The likely course of events is that McEneny will hit the waiver wire and head to Utica, where he’ll be in competition with the likes of Andrey Pedan, Jordan Subban, and Philip Holm for the right to be the first call up when injuries hit. Of course, there’s also always the chance that injuries hit before the exhibition games even finish.
In any case, I think that McEneny has the potential to be a regular defencemen on the Canucks for the foreseeable future, given his development, the way the coaching staff has responded to him, and intelligence and preparation. His future is probably as a middle-to-bottom pairing guy who can fill in on special teams in a pinch.