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MacKenzie finds his niche in Columbus

by John Manasso
Derek MacKenzie said that like a lot of things that come out of the mouth of former Stanley Cup-winning coach Bob Hartley, the words were not easy to hear.

As a young player trying to break into the League with Atlanta, MacKenzie was often called up and then sent quickly back to the Chicago Wolves of American Hockey League. Between 2001-02 and 2006-07, he played 28 games with the Thrashers spread out over four seasons.

Derek MacKenzie
Center - CBJ
GOALS: 5 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 11
SOG: 54 | +/-: 3
During one discussion after a demotion, Hartley questioned MacKenzie's identity as a player.

"He said, 'Mac, I'm not sure what you are,'" MacKenzie recalled. "'I'm not sure if you're a fast guy or a skilled guy or a shutdown guy. What are you? What’s your identity? When you’re in the minor leagues, you have to make sure you're a player you can put on the ice whether you're up a goal or down a goal.'"

MacKenzie, now 30, took those words to heart. He knows what he is now and that is an excellent defensive forward. On a team with by far the League's worst goal differential (minus-59), MacKenzie is one of only two players on the Blue Jackets who own a plus rating, leading the team at plus-3 (the other, rookie Ryan Johansen, has played in only 46 games to MacKenzie's 59, making the latter one of five players to suit up for all of his team's games this season).

Last season, MacKenzie set a franchise record with a plus-14 rating. He began building towards that season in July 2007 when he signed with the Blue Jackets. The move came with a fresh start.

"I went to Columbus and their farm system and got an opportunity to play offensively, to do some things I hadn't done in Chicago," he said. "That allowed me to evolve a little bit, get some confidence. Confidence was a big part of why I was able to make it."

Those who know MacKenzie well say that what has helped him to make it as an NHL player, despite being only 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, is his attention to detail, willingness to work and his hockey smarts – the kind of traits that come from being a coach's son. MacKenzie's father Ken is the assistant general manager of the Sudbury Wolves in the Ontario Hockey League.



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Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff was the Chicago Wolves' general manager when MacKenzie served as team captain (MacKenzie also served as captain of his junior team). MacKenzie won a Calder Cup with the Wolves and lost in the finals in 2004-05.

Cheveldayoff remembers Ken MacKenzie driving literally all day to attend Wolves games – almost 700 miles -- and then leaving as soon as they ended to drive literally all night home. Ken MacKenzie and Cheveldayoff still keep in touch. Cheveldayoff praised Derek MacKenzie's work in the community and leadership qualities during his days with the Wolves.

"It's one of those good stories that he's found a way to work in his trade," Cheveldayoff said. "When you're in the minor league level, it's good to see the stuff you preach does come true: playing solid defensively -- working at the finer points of the game -- will get you your foot in the door and he did that."

Blue Jackets interim coach Todd Richards echoed that sentiment. MacKenzie has taken only 356 draws this season (team leader Samuel Pahlsson has taken 789), but he has won 54.2 percent of them. As a junior player, MacKenzie won 67 percent of his faceoffs, helping him to win both the OHL and Canadian Hockey League Faceoff Awards in 2001.

"Well, it's his speed and his work," Richards said. "That's what allows him to have success in this League. He's willing to pay a price: block shots, take hits. He does a lot of the dirty things that really go unnoticed in a game and don't end up on a scoresheet.

"For a lot of guys, you have to find a way to get yourself into the NHL -- get here and stay here. He's done a good job with faceoffs, (being a) penalty-killer for us. He fulfills some roles for us, but a lot of those roles that, again, just go unnoticed."

Having played 63 games last season and in every game this season, MacKenzie has proven he is an NHL player. However, while playing 550 games in the AHL, the thought occurred to MacKenzie that he might not ever make it as an NHL regular.

"Yeah, I think so for sure," he said. "I mean, I played quite a few games. I think I'd be the first to admit when I was young, those first couple of years, I probably wasn't ready to play in the NHL and I thought I could play and it was a matter of getting a break or being on the outside looking in. So it wasn't until I came to Columbus and I got my foot in the door. I tried to do the best I can."

In recent days and weeks, MacKenzie's high-profile teammates Rick Nash and Jeff Carter have been the subject of trade rumors. MacKenzie's modest $600,000 contract is up at the end of the season and it's possible that a contender might want a defensive forward who is good on the penalty kill and on faceoffs and won't make any waves in the room.

"You know what, it's not really something I try to think about too much," MacKenzie said of the possibility of being dealt before next Monday's deadline. "It's kind of flattering. I like Columbus. I like the guys in the room. It's definitely disappointing and frustrating the situation we're in. Sometimes it gets a little monotonous to keep saying we're doing the right things and headed in the right direction, but I think we are closer."

Perhaps it's just a matter of belief – a concept that MacKenzie is familiar with.
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