SUNRISE, Fla. - Derek MacKenzie's leadership was put to the test in his first season as captain of the Florida Panthers.
As the club endured an unwelcome storm of injuries and adversity throughout the entire 2016-17 campaign, their captain, a grizzled veteran and penalty-killing ace, helped guide his teammates through it.
"I learned a lot," said MacKenzie, the ninth captain in franchise history. "I can tell you that the guys in (the dressing room) are incredible guys. There wasn't a second this year that they didn't treat me the way I would want to be treated. They were all super helpful. I leaned on them and they leaned on me."
A 14-year NHL veteran, MacKenzie knows better than most that the role of captain is about far more than simply having a "C" stitched onto your jersey. It's a job that resonates more deeply than what you see on the surface - the arguing with officials, the ceremonial puck drops at center ice. In fact, the role isn't even really about your own personal accolades, but rather the effect you have - both on and off the ice - on the players that surround you.
With his hard-nosed style of play, MacKenzie set an example on the ice that other players were expected to follow. He put his body on the line during each and every game this past season - racking up 45 blocked shots and a team-leading 192 hits - and asked his teammates to either match his own courage or honor it by going the other way and scoring a goal.
"He's a hard-working guy who's just the perfect captain," Jaromir Jagr said of MacKenzie. "He cares about the team, knows his role on it. Every time he's on the ice, he gives you everything he has. He's a good example for everyone."
As the leader of the NHL's second-ranked penalty kill, MacKenzie also somehow managed to shine the brightest when his team was in literally outnumbered. The 35-year-old averaged the most shorthanded minutes per game (2:15) among Florida's forwards and was second to only newcomer Colton Sceviour in shorthanded goals (2).
Still, MacKenzie's pride lies with his leadership.
After a victory, the Sudbury, Ontario native is clearly happiest when he's doling out praise to his teammates, a smile following each verbal gold star that comes out of his mouth. For although he is the leader of the present, the battle-tested center is most excited when looking ahead to the future, where he expects the team's talented young core of players to soon lead the Panthers to a Stanley Cup.
"This is some of the best young talent that I've ever had an opportunity to play with," said MacKenzie, who had 16 points (6-10-16) in 82 games during his third season in Sunrise. "Not only are they great players on the ice, but they're great people off the ice. Through all of the ups and downs and the things that went on this year, it was the young guys that kept things together and kept us rolling.
"The Barkovs, the Ekblads, the Trochecks -- I know I'm forgetting a bunch of the young guys -- but all those guys are going to be good players. I know they're going to come back in and be ready to go. We just need to be ready to go when the puck drops in October."
When the Panthers needed to win a big faceoff, they often turned to MacKenzie.
He ranked third on the team in total faceoffs (772) and faceoff wins (386), while also finishing the season second in both faceoff percentage (50 percent) and defensive-zone faceoff wins (192).
A faceoff specialist throughout his career, MacKenzie one of the most reliable forwards in the entire NHL when it comes to doing some damage in the dot, owning a plus-50 faceoff percentage in each of his last nine seasons.
In his first of two multi-point games he recorded this past season, MacKenzie tallied a goal and an assist to help lead the Panthers to a 4-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks at the BB&T Center on Dec. 10.
Video: VAN@FLA: MacKenzie tips loose puck past Markstrom
GOAL OF THE YEAR
Don't let his age fool you; MacKenzie has still got wheels.
On this play, MacKenzie, quickly ramping up from regular to ludicrous speed, races down the left side of the ice, torching Capitals defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk before sniping a shorthanded goal past goaltender Braden Holtby to put the Panthers up 1-0 over Washington on April 9.
Video: FLA@WSH: MacKenzie converts the SHG off the post