Now that our midterm prospect rankings are back rolling and we’ve breached the top 20, we’re getting into some prospects that have had a higher degree of optimism at some point or another. The last time I wrote a feature on Brett McKenzie, it was during his highly impressive start to the 2016-17 season, not long after Canucks drafted him in the seventh round as an overager in 2016. Today, we’ll take a closer look at how he’s progressed since then and whether there is still reason for optimism.
First, a quick review of how these rankings were formed. Seven lists, including six from Canucks Army writers (myself, J.D. Burke, Ryan Biech, Jackson McDonald, Vanessa Jang, and Janik Beichler) plus the reader rankings, were consolidated into one list. The parameters are that each prospect must:
- be under the age of 25;
- have played fewer than 25 NHL games; and
- be under contract to the Vancouver Canucks or on their reserve (e.g. as an unsigned draft choice).
Now let’s dig deep into the next member of our list.
#18: Brett McKenzie
Age: 20 – Position: Centre – Shoots: Left – Height: – 6’2″ – Weight: 192 lbs
Guillaume Brisebois is mentioned as the player the Canucks essentially got in return for Eddie Lack at the 2015 NHL draft, but he wasn’t the only asset coming back from Carolina in that deal. The Canucks also got a seventh round pick for the following year, which they used to select Brett McKenzie 194th overall.
A diligent two-way centre who found an extra gear of offence in his draft-plus-one season, McKenzie was taken as an overager – typically a smart bet in the later rounds, as the extra year of development adds some certainty, even if it subtracts some potential upside. McKenzie got off to a fiery start in 2016-17, scoring six goals and five assists in his first six games. The explosion out of the gate was so noticeable that I simply had to pen an article asking, how good is good in a draft-plus-two season?
The answer was, McKenzie’s current pace was extremely good, and if he kept it up, it would be an unprecedented jump from draft-plus-one to draft-plus-two production. However, historical trends indicated that players that produced as he had at age-18 were likely to produce at around 0.94 points per game at age-19, so I predicted a regression to about a point per game by the end of the season. As it turned out, he finished the season with 67 points in 67 games, dead on a point per game pace.
This ended up making a huge difference in his future projection. I put together a pGPS Spectrum chart below that assesses expected likelihoods of success (XLS%) at varying degrees of production for players of similar age and size. You can see the marked difference between where he ended up (1.00 point per game, about 12% XLS%) and where he was at the time I wrote the article (in yellow; 1.50 points per game, about 40% XLS%).
Near the end of that season, McKenzie turned 20-years old. That meant when 2017-18 rolled around, he’d be eligible to head to the American League and try his hand at pro hockey. And that he did, at first anyway. McKenzie joined the Comets during their preseason, and it looked like he might earn a spot there, but was eventually cut and returned to the OHL for an overage season. At the time, it looked like the Comets were going to be loaded up from, and we postulated that Canucks management may have felt that he’d be too buried down the lineup, or pushed out of the lineup, to make a transition to pro worthwhile (little did the team know that they’d be so ravaged by injury that Cole Cassels would be the first line centre by the end of December).
This was a mighty blow to McKenzie. By and large, most players that aren’t ready to play professional hockey by the time they’re eligible to don’t end up making it as NHL players. Between 2001 and 2010, only 2.5% of OHL players in their draft-plus-three seasons found NHL success while under team control (defined here as at least 75 NHL games in their first seven post-draft seasons). That meant that even if McKenzie lit the OHL up this year, he’d still be viewed as a long shot statistically.
But he hasn’t lit the OHL up. In fact, he’s taken a pretty serious step back this year. He put up 23 points in 31 games with the North Bay Battalion (0.74 points per game) before being traded to the Owen Sound Attack. On a substantially better team, albeit with a smaller role, he’s managed 16 points in 23 contests (0.70 points per game), for a total of 39 points in 54 games on the season. This have left him with an unfavourable expected likelihood of success of under 2%, with a large cohort whose highlights topped out as replacement level players.
So what happened to Brett McKenzie this year? Well for starters, he was playing on a pretty bad team. I mentioned last year that McKenzie’s was the only NHL-drafted forward on his team, leaving him with a pretty substantial load to shoulder. That trend has continued, and with McKenzie now traded, the Battalion have zero NHL-drafted forwards on their team, which is a bit of an indictment on their overall skill level.
McKenzie was playing a ton for North Bay, and the production simply was coming. Since being traded to Owen Sound, his ice time has taken a huge hit, but his production by rate has increased, which is why his per game rate is about the same on both squads. That all makes perfect sense for a player going from being a central cog on a bad team to a bit player on a good team.
One culprit that sticks out like a sore thumb is McKenzie’s shooting percentage. During his time in North Bay, McKenzie’s shooting percentage of 6.7% held him to a low goal total, despite a very impressive shot rate of 4.35 shots per game (a slight bump up from last season’s 4.26). The fact that his most frequent linemates in North Bay, Luke Burghardt and Justin Brazeau, see their point rates shoot out when separated from McKenzie at even strength is probably an indication of a poor on-ice shooting percentage for their line rather than any ineptitude on the part of McKenzie himself. Interestingly, McKenzie has actually had more high-danger scoring chances this year compared to last year, and in less games.
In Owen Sound, McKenzie is spending much of his time as the third line centre, behind Kevin Hancock and Aidan Dudas, as well as getting some special teams time. He’s been on the ice for three short handed goals for Owen Sound, including one which he scored himself.
The Canucks retain McKenzie’s rights until June 1st of this year. If he isn’t signed by then, he’ll be returned to the NHL Entry Draft, after which, if he isn’t selected, he will become a free agent. Given the substantial drop in production, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Canucks were reticent to giving him a contract, even if he seems to be suffering from a lack of luck. The Canucks are, however, sitting at just 46 contracts of a possible 50 (according to CapFriendly.com), and even though they still need to sign Adam Gaudette, and might want to give a contract to the likes of Kole Lind of perhaps a college free agent, they still have plenty of flexibility in that regard. The fact that McKenzie nearly started the season with the Comets indicates that the organization feels he’s at least pretty close to being ready for professional hockey.
That said, he’s still a long shot, and his upside isn’t particularly high even if he makes it, and that’s the reason that he’s this far down our list this time around.