“I [followed him] when he was with the Oilers,” McKenzie said. “He’s also from the Kootenays, which is the region I am from, so I followed him for that reason too. It’s pretty neat to get to play on his line.”
And McKenzie has been reaping the benefits of skating on a line with the veteran Horcoff the past few games. So has Brett Ritchie. The line of McKenzie, Horcoff and Ritchie was an effective one on the recent road trip. Stars coach Lindy Ruff put those three together during the first game the team’s recent road trip, and the trio didn’t disappoint.
“They’ve been fabulous,” Ruff said. “Making plays and they’ve got real good puck support. They’ve been dominant down low. Both McKenzie and Ritchie have hung onto pucks. The grind time has been real good for those guys and at the end of that grind time they are making plays. I really liked the way that line has played.”
McKenzie, Horcoff and Ritchie chipped in some big goals during the Stars’ recent 4-1-0 road trip and they put together some dominant shifts in the offensive zone. The line came up big in Thursday’s 5-3 win in Carolina, producing one goal and playing a role in a couple others. On one, they pinned the Hurricanes in their end, got off the ice for a line change and the fresh troops scored to put the Stars ahead 2-1.
“I thought that changed the momentum of the game,” Ritchie said.
Playing with Horcoff has given some momentum to the games of Ritchie and McKenzie, two of five rookies currently in the lineup for the Stars.
“Horcs has been great for me and Brett,” said McKenzie. “He gives us a lot of advice on the bench and during the game. He’s a smart player, and he sees a lot of what’s going on. Playing with him has helped our confidence go way up. He’s got us holding onto pucks more, using our cycle and outworking them. Brett and I have been learning to use our bodies in this league.”
“Our style of games complement each other pretty well,” Ritchie said. “I am a pretty similar player to McKenzie. Horcs is kind of the veteran presence on the line. He’s always giving us tips on the bench constantly and even on the ice he is always yelling. He’s a good communicator out there. We’re all on the same page, and we’re all going hard, so it’s working.”
Being a mentor for young players is nothing new for Horcoff. He was a veteran presence on a very young Oilers team in his final few seasons in Edmonton. He knows the routine, and he’s enjoying this one with McKenzie and Ritchie.
“We kind of feed off each other,” Horcoff said. “There’s lots of communication going on. They want to listen. They want to learn. They want to get better. That makes it a heck of a lot easier.”
And Horcoff has plenty of advice.
“I want them to make as many plays as possible. I want them to get their head up, make a play when it’s there, but just not at the offensive blue line. That’s the one area,” Horcoff said. “I think the tendency for a lot of young guys is to be a little over cautious and give the puck up to a veteran player. You can’t get any better. I want them to make plays. I want them to have the confidence. And I think their confidence is growing every game. We’ve got some good chemistry, and I think there is a good work ethic out there too.”
McKenzie and Ritchie have been impressive along the boards, winning puck battles and keeping play in the opposition end. But Horcoff said when the three first started playing together, it didn’t always go their way.
“When I first started playing with them I felt they were losing a couple battles down low,” Horcoff said. “I had to remind them that this is the National Hockey League and that you are going to have to go in at 100 percent in every battle. Every guy is strong in this league. It’s not going to be like the AHL, where maybe you get position and shield a guy off. And they really responded. The last couple games they’ve won almost all of the battles. That’s resulted in good offensive time for us, and we’ve had great cycles, we’ve got pucks to the net and we’ve been rewarded for it.”
And Ruff said Horcoff offers the kids more than just words of advice. The veteran forward is using all tools available, including statistics.
“I give him a lot of credit. He is grabbing a hold of those two guys,” Ruff said. “He’s got them watching some video and doing some stats stuff, keeping track of different stats that I had Horcoff keep an eye on himself. He’s really bought in, and he’s asking for those numbers every game. If those numbers aren’t in the right place, he is trying to hold those two kids accountable. I give him a lot of credit.”
And so do McKenzie and Ritchie.
“To have a guy like that who is always helping us out and talking is helpful for young guys,” Ritchie said. “I think we’ve learned more from him than anybody, especially playing with him.”
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.