MacKenzie Weegar makes it look easy.
The Panthers’ blue line prospect has been tearing it up in the QMJHL playoffs as his Halifax Mooseheads have a 3-2 edge in their semifinal bout with the Val-d’or Foreurs and have their sights firmly set on another run at the CHL Memorial Cup. Weegar leads all QMJHL defensemen in playoff scoring with 21 points (5-16-21) in 14 games, including two helpers in Saturday’s Game 5 victory. His vast offensive potential is easy to see as he continues to effortlessly quarterback the Mooseheads attack from the blue line.
Weegar’s QMJHL aplomb belies the hardships he has had to overcome to get to his current level. Never a ‘can’t miss’ player during his path through the Canadian youth hockey system, Weegar was cut from AAA junior teams as a 13 and 14-year-old and was passed over in two Ontario Hockey League drafts before finally finding a home with the Mooseheads in the QMJHL.
Determination and hard work are the assets that Weegar has used to fight through those early hardships to emerge as an exciting defensive prospect. Weegar, who was also passed over in his first year of NHL draft eligibility, was taken by the Panthers in the 7th round of the 2013 draft, following a season in which he tallied 44 points (8-36-44) in 62 regular season games for the Mooseheads while playing a key role in their run to the Memorial Cup. Even after that strong rookie QMJHL campaign, being selected in the NHL draft was never a sure thing.
“I kind of had doubts again a little bit,” Weegar said. “I didn’t think I was going to get picked.”
Weegar, who was taken with the 206th pick, says he is not bothered by being a late selection. Instead, it is another chance to prove people wrong.
“I’ve really done that my whole career,” Weegar said. “It will just be another thing to prove to people that I’ll be a great hockey player. I got passed over in my first draft year, so being a 7th rounder, it just got me to where I want to be.”
It did not take long for the Ottawa, Ontario native to leave an impression with the Florida brass. Weegar turned heads at rookie camp last summer and then again at training camp in the fall where he was rewarded for his strong play with the chance to stick around on the Panthers roster for a few extra days before being sent back to Halifax to prepare for his QMJHL season.
Weegar carried that momentum from training camp through to his sophomore season with the Mooseheads, where he was the team’s top scoring defenseman with 59 points (12-47-59) in 61 games. In his second season, Weegar has taken on a larger role on both offense and defense, something that he says has greatly helped his development.
“It’s nice to take on that role on the first powerplay, and our powerplay has been great,” Weegar said. “Even with Austyn Hardie, my D-partner, we’ve been doing a great job shutting down the first and second lines on some pretty good teams so far so the challenge has been great, and it’s been working out for us.”
After his strong regular season, Weegar took his game up another notch for the playoffs. The second ranked Mooseheads glided through the first two rounds, winning eight of their first nine games. Now in the semifinals, they have finally faced a bit of adversity against the third ranked Foreurs. Halifax lost the first two games against the Foreurs but have since battled back to take a 3-2 lead in the series. The turning point came in game three when the Mooseheads, down 5-1 on the road, engineered a thrilling comeback to win the game 6-5 in OT. Weegar was a central figure in the comeback as he scored the game tying goal with 3:59 to play in regulation.
“Going to play in a rink like Val-d’or, where it is just one of those little Quebec rinks that are really loud, we did a great job,” Weegar said of the road win. “It sounds pretty cliché but we faced adversity and we brought it through with a lot of character.”
The Mooseheads will play game six tonight in Val-d’or with a chance to win the series. If a seventh game is needed, the two teams will meet in Halifax on Tuesday night.
Momentous wins have already become a big part of Weegar’s reputation as he has been part of championship teams at every level of his young career. Weegar’s strong play and knack for winning has drawn the attention of some important figures, namely Panthers GM Dale Tallon.
“The kid in Halifax, Weegar, is a heck of a player,” Tallon said in his year-end media conference. “I saw him last week and he was sensational. He’s going to be [a] powerplay guy.”
That is high praise coming from the GM of the team that drafted him but Weegar takes the accolades in stride.
“Everything has happened so fast,” Weegar said. “Just to hear that from the GM of the Florida Panthers, it’s crazy.”
Weegar, who describes himself as an offensive defenseman, says he is excited to be a part of the group of young players in the Panthers pipeline.
“It looks like we’re going to be a pretty strong team in the future and hopefully I’ll be a part of it too,” Weegar said of Florida. “It would be awesome for me to be a part of that team because it looks like they’re going to go far in the future.”
The bright future with the Panthers is certainly exciting for the young defenseman but for now, Weegar is focused on the tough battles that lie ahead in the QMJHL playoffs.