February 24 2017 03:34PM
Photo Credit: Lindsay A. Mogle / Utica Comets
NOTE: This was written before Jim Benning revealed today that Evan McEneny would be called up to the Vancouver Canucks in response to several players being diagnosed or tested for the mumps. I was going to advocate for McEneny being a late season call up, but now that that's already happened, you can consider this a primer on him instead.
Once a forgotten member of the Canucks prospect pool, Evan McEneny is suddenly putting up numbers in his first full season with the Utica Comets. Struggling to remain in the lineup just a few months ago, McEneny is now an all-situations player for Comets coach Travis Green, and is seemingly resistant to the rotating healthy scratches.
Is this simply a blip of the radar, or do the Canucks still have something in McEneny?
A Brief History
Evan McEneny came to the Canucks in a rather unusual manner. Having blown out his ACL in his draft season, he played just two games in 2011-12. Prior to the season, he was considered to be a prospect worthy of selection in the top two rounds. Afterwards, with almost nothing to show for an entire season, McEneny went undrafted at the 2012 NHL Entry draft - thus making him a free agent up until the beginning of the OHL season (a la Kyle Maksimovich prior to this season).
Mike Gillis - who, despite his horrid draft record, had a solid record of picking up undrafted free agents, including Chris Tanev and Eddie Lack - invited McEneny to the Canucks 2012 summer development camp. There McEneny impressed the Canucks brass enough for them to offer him an Entry Level Contract while the window was still open.
McEneny returned to the Kitchener Rangers for his draft-plus-one season, where he was frequently paired with Canucks 2011 draft pick Frank Corrado. That year he put up six goals and 34 points in 65 games. The following season, he was traded early in the year to the Kingston Frontenacs, finishing the season with 42 points in 61 games, and a single game cameo with the Comets at the age of 20.
Entering the 2014-15 season, now in his draft-plus-three year, McEneny was dispatched back to the OHL as an overager, as opposed to heading to Utica. It's always a troubling sign to see a prospect spend an overage season in the CHL as opposed to moving on to a greater challenge. McEneny's goal total improved to nine that year, but his points remained relatively static, accumulating 45 points in 68 games. He didn't see any time with the Comets at the end of the season, despite their long playoff run.
In 2015-16, McEneny started the season with Utica, but played just one of the first five games before being dispatched to the ECHL. After one game in Kalamazoo, he returned to the Comets, again playing just once in four games. On November 6th he was again sent to Kalamazoo, and played in his second ECHL game that night. It was then that he suffered an upper body injury that would keep him out of game action for two and a half months.
When he returned to health in late January, McEneny was entrenched in the East Coast league, needing time regain his timing after being away from the game. After three pointless games, he grabbed two assists in his fourth game following the injury. By the end of the season, he'd tallied 25 points in 36 games, putting him second in scoring among defencemen on the KWings, despite playing in just half the team's games.
McEneny again started the season with the Comets, and again had trouble getting into the lineup - he was a healthy scratch in five of the first six games. Then something changed - Travis Green appeared to throw McEneny a bone, playing him with Andrey Pedan at even strength, and giving him time on the second power play unit. McEneny played well, but didn't make much of the opportunity offensively. He scored his first goal (and first point) of the season on November 30th, his tenth game of the campaign. It took him 13 more games to get another point, an assist on January 7th. The following weekend, it began.
On January 14th, McEneny scored his second goal of the season, and the floodgates finally opened. Since that date, he's scored another four goals and added 10 assists, giving him 15 points in a 17-game span. Halfway through that streak, McEneny replaced Colby Robak as the power play quarterback on the Comets' top unit. Already a staple on the penalty killer, McEneny has gone from struggling to get into the lineup to a critical all-situations player in the span of a few months.
"My confidence has gotten a lot higher," McEneny told the Utica Observer-Dispatch a couple of weeks ago. "Playing in every game on a consistent basis has helped me a lot. Playing with confidence is a big thing for me. When I play with confidence, I find I have a better game."
Because McEneny had totaled just three games in the AHL prior to 2016-17, he is still considered a rookie this year. Though his 17 points puts him in 12th in scoring among rookie blueliners, the pace at which he's scored over the past 21 games (16 points, 0.76 points per game) is better than any rookie defenceman has sustained over the course of the season.
What began as a bit of a hot streak has turned into something more, and given McEneny's history of point production at other levels, and his underlying numbers, it's looking more and more reasonable that this current McEneny is the true version, and it was the unproductive version at the start of the year that was the aberration.
"He's a guy that has improved a lot over the season," head coach Travis Green said. "He's learned how to be a good pro. There are not a lot of nights where he doesn't play a pretty solid game. That's part of his preparation and part of learning how to be a pro and being ready to play every night."
The Scouting Report
McEneny has always been known as a puck-moving two-way defenceman. At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, he's got size on his side. He's a very good skater, a displays excellent vision on the ice, couple with excellent passing, which can be hard and accurate when necessary, or with an extra helping of sauce, like on this play (he's number 4):
Sign Curtis Valk, by the way.
While McEneny doesn't have a bomb of a shot like Jordan Subban does, he has a knack for getting it through to the net, and he shoots the puck a lot. His 104 shots on net trails only Jordan Subban (107) among Comets defencemen, and is fifth on the team altogether, despite having played just 42 of the team's 53 games.
Those 104 shots don't even include the times that he's loaded up and his shot has been deflected, since those would be attributed to the deflector. On several occasions, those deflections have beaten the goalie, earning McEneny an assist, including twice in one game recently against St. John's (he also scored a goal on a screen shot):
As an offensive defenceman, he's somewhere between Subban and Troy Stecher in terms of power, but shares their ability to control the play from the blue line, albeit with a little more steadiness and less flash.
McEneny has shown that zone breakouts are a strength of his, and in that area he might have an advantage over Subban. Whereas Subban is more of a rusher, McEneny plays more of a quarterback role on breakouts. He possesses the speed to move quickly through open spaces, but leaves himself the appropriate amount of room to make the smart play - something Subban has struggled with this year. That McEneny is typically a safer breakout player has likely played a role in his taking over the first power play unit. He's skates well, but just as importantly, he skates smart, and rarely into trouble that he can't get himself out of.
Rush defence is another area that he has excelled in. His gap control is consistently reliable, and he is able to use his large frame to quickly take opponents off the puck and out of the play. In this area, it helps to have a reliable partner to retrieve the puck, which hasn't always been the case this season.
Another thing that has very noticeable about McEneny is his ability to play the right side as a left handed shooter. Given the makeup of the Comets lineup, they tend to find themselves dressing four left-handed defencemen each night, at the least, and sometimes as many as five or six. McEneny has generally been the (or of the) lefties playing on his offside, usually with either Ashton Sautner or Andrey Pedan, and it hasn't seemed to hamper him at all.
Whether or not McEneny is just being a good teammate by always playing his off-side, or if he actually prefers it on that side, we don't know, but it's a good ability to have in his arsenal - he isn't limited to one side of the ice, and thus isn't going to be restricted by how a roster is composed.
The first thing that will jump out at you at this point is the sudden explosion of McEneny's point total. I described it early, but the visual representation is even more jarring.
McEneny's point production has certainly been impressive, but points come and go, especially in conjunction with opportunity. McEneny is getting plenty of that right now, and he's rewarding the coaching staff.
What's really impressed me however, are his shot totals. I've fawned over them of late in my Comets weekly articles, especially the most recent one, in which McEneny put a whopping 19 shots on net in a four game span, just one week after putting 14 shots on net in a four game span. That kind of shot generation is a very good sign.
Unsurprisingly, a that shot generation has increased over the course of the season in conjunction with both his ice time and his confidence. In the last half dozen games, he's taken that to a new level, putting up seven and eight shots in individual games.
There has been a start change in his underlying numbers as well - as least in what little we have to work with in the AHL. Somehow, between bad luck and lack of opportunity, it took McEneny until December 28th to be on the ice for a 5-on-5 Comets goal. Prior to that, he was on the ice for 10 5-on-5 goals against. Since then, he's been on the ice for 22 goals for and 17 against at 5-on-5. Though he's still a bit in the red on the season as a whole, he's been trending in the right direction for some time.
It's hard to pin point any statistical reason for his sudden improvement. More likely, it's a result of a growth in confidence and comfortability in response to increased ice time and opportunity. The coaches have showed faith in McEneny, and he has rewarded them by developing into one of their strongest defencemen.
McEneny has played with a myriad of partners this season, as all the Comets defencemen have, but his two most common partners have been Ashton Sautner and Andrey Pedan.
Sautner has struggled a fair bit this season, and I originally suspected that switching from predominantly playing with Sautner to Pedan later in the year might have played a role in his increasing on-ice metrics.
However, despite the fact that Sautner has some pretty dreadful numbers away from McEneny, they've had pretty great results as a pair - better even than the results he's had with Pedan. The briefer times he spent with Jordan Subban and Chad Billins seemed to be far more of an issue.
This WOWY chart shows the goals-for percentage together and away from each of McEneny's fve most common defence partners. It clearly indicates that McEneny was the stronger member of the pairing of he and Sautner, though the combination of the two of them seemed to benefit all. However, McEneny has been putting up a whole lot more individual points away from Sautner than he was with him.
To answer the question posed by the title, yes I do believe that the Canucks have something in Evan McEneny. I believe that the combination of opportunity and confidence is allowing him to show who he really is, which is a productive, reliable defenceman.
The funny thing about McEneny's sudden emergence is that he had gone entirely under the radar as a prospect when we did our rankings, both in the preseason and midseason. In both cases, he was simply an honourable mention. During the midterm rankings, he ended up 24th in voting. I personally had him 20th, but given the progression he's shown since then, I'd be hardpressed not to put him in the top ten. Yes, I'm serious.
McEneny's development as a legitimate all-situations player at the professional level who collects points and generates a large amount of shots has me willing to put him ahead of other defensive prospects like Ashton Sautner (who he's long since passed on the Utica depth chart), Tate Olson, and Carl Neill, players who have had good CHL careers but have yet to even be tested at the professional level. Remember that McEneny too had some productive years in junior.
He's not in the same league as Olli Juolevi, and while he doesn't have the same raw offensive talent as Subban, he might be a player that the Canucks' management is more willing to give an opportunity to, given his play in his own end. He also doesn't have the same raw tools as Andrey Pedan, but certainly has more offensive upside.
McEneny isn't a surefire success, but he's a very intriguing player at this point. He's been found money for the Canucks not once, but twice now - first as a CHL free agent, and now resurrecting his status as a prospect after a year battling injury in the ECHL.
With the Canucks season winding down, McEneny is a player that I would consider giving a small cameo to at the NHL level, just to see what he's capable of. You never know what you have in a player until you provide them with the opportunity to show you.