MacKenzie Weegar took another big step forward this season.
In his second full campaign in the NHL, the 25-year-old defenseman established himself as a regular fixture on the Florida Panthers blue line in 2018-19, setting new career highs in goals (4), assists (11) and games played (64), while also averaging a career-best 16:58 per contest.
"I think I've come a long way from the year before and continued to take steps forward," Weegar said after cleaning out his locker at BB&T Center on April 8. "Reflecting back on this past year, I thought it was a pretty good year. Obviously we're all disappointed with the outcome, but for me personally, not bad. We've got some work to do so that next year we're playing in the playoffs."
Starting the season on the team's bottom-pairing, Weegar eventually worked his way up to the second pair after the All-Star break, suiting up alongside veteran Keith Yandle. Hitting his stride in late-February, the former seventh-round pick was simply outstanding down the home stretch, posting three goals, five assists, 49 hits and 41 blocked shots over his final 18 games played.
According to NaturalStatTrick.com, during the 220:04 that Weegar and Yandle shared the ice at 5-on-5, the Panthers led the opposition in goals (11-6), shots (116-100) and attempts (226-200).
"It's a lot more pressure, but the game's a lot more fun," Weegar said of the added responsibility of his late-season promotion. "You're playing more into the game, just playing with a little bit of a looser lease. Seeing that kind of trust placed in me was nice. Playing with Keith's obviously fun; a lot of laughs, too. He makes me play loose out there. I think you saw that when you watched."
While he enjoyed playing loose, Weegar also knew when to get serious. As one of the team's tough guys, he never shied away from contact or a fight. In addition to dishing out a career-best 127 hits, he also finished tied with fellow D-man Josh Brown for the team-lead in fights with four.
A good example of the value of that physicality came against the Winnipeg Jets during Game 2 of the 2019 Global Series in Finland on Nov. 2. Tied 2-2 in the second period, Weegar went toe-to-toe with Brendan Lemieux after the Jets forward had laid out Vincent Trocheck with an ugly hit to the head. Following the brawl, the Panthers scored two unanswered goals to win 4-2.
"I like to play physical," said Weegar, who has dropped the gloves six times over the past two seasons. "I think it gets everybody going. Having Brownie come up and play that same role, it fired me up. I'm sure it fires everybody else up, and the fans love it. I like that style of hockey."
With back-to-back seasons of at least 60 games, Weegar's starting to feel like an NHL player.
"I don't take any day in this league for granted," Weegar said. "I think it's a hard league to stay in. But if I continue to play consistent hockey, I think I still have a pretty good future in the NHL."
Heading into next season, Weegar believes the arrival of new head coach Joel Quenneville will help his game reach new heights. The second-winningest coach in league history, Quenneville previously succeeded in shaping the careers of numerous defensemen, such as Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson, during a decade of immense success with the Chicago Blackhawks that was highlighted by Stanley Cup championships in 2010, 2013 and 2015.
"It's going to take my game to the next level," Weegar said. "He's obviously got a lot of experience."
Weegar's defense-first mentality was put the good use on the penalty kill this season.
Seeing a career-high 92:24 of shorthanded ice time, he finished third on the team in blocks while on the penalty kill (16). He was also one of the team's best blue liners in terms of limiting shorthanded shots, with Florida allowing 79.91 attempts per 60 minutes while he was on the PK.
Overall, the Panthers surrendered just 4.51 goals per 60 minutes while Weegar was deployed on the penalty kill, which stands as the lowest mark among the team's regular rearguards.
Weegar lit the lamp twice within a span of less than two minutes to register the first multi-goal game of his NHL career and help lift the Panthers to a 6-2 win over the Minnesota Wild at BB&T Center on March 8.
Entering the evening with just one goal on the year, he found the back of the net twice in the first period, starting with a long shot that deflected off a defenseman and into the net to extend Florida's lead to 2-0 at 16:51. Then, a mere 1:40 after that first goal, he was back at it again, burying a booming slap shot from the top of the right circle to extend the lead at 3-0 at 18:31.
Video: MIN@FLA: Weegar blasts puck by Dubnyk for second goal
"It's been a little while," Weegar said after the game, alluding to the fact that it'd be roughly three months since the last time he tickled the twine. "Honestly, I haven't been shooting the puck a lot lately. I shot a couple tonight and they went in, so maybe I should keep shooting the puck."
Rewarded for his offensive outburst with ice time, he skated a season-high 23:15 in the win.
GOAL OF THE YEAR
How satisfying was the "ping!" on this goal?
Taking a pass from Jonathan Huberdeau, Weegar skated into the high slot before unleashing a blistering wrist shot that flew over Darcy Kuemper's glove, hit the cross bar and went in to put the Panthers up 3-1 over the Arizona Coyotes in the third period at BB&T Center on March 21.
A beautiful goal in its own right, it also gets bonus points for ending up as the game-winner.
Video: ARI@FLA: Weegar picks corner on Kuemper
"His goal was unbelievable - bar down," Huberdeau said when asked about Weegar's top-shelf snipe after the game. "He's a good player. I think he's gaining more confidence this year. He's played a lot of games. I think he can be a huge part of our team."