There’s something different about Evan McEneny. At 6-foot-2 and 213 pounds, the veteran rearguard has always had a physical presence in a room. But this season, it’s more than just his size that’s drawing attention.
Heading into his fourth season with the Rangers, McEneny is carrying himself with a quiet confidence – a confidence he says has been growing since his return from a serious knee injury in 2011. After missing his entire sophomore season, the Hamilton-area native returned for 2012-13 and made big strides, in the most literal sense.
“When I was injured, I couldn’t do any skating so this year was big for me, skating in the summer and working a lot on my quickness and my speed. That’s always been a problem, and especially after the injury because I couldn’t do much with my legs for five or six months,” explains the 19-year-old defenceman. So, after spending last summer finishing up his rehabilitation, this off-season was all about his skating.
“It’s on-ice and off-ice. I think you can train as hard as you want off the ice – that’s going to make you stronger – but you have to physically go through the motions and do the different steps and skating on the ice. You can be as strong as you want off the ice, but if you aren’t practicing and you’re not putting it to work, then you’re not going to improve.”
And the work is paying off. The season is young, but McEneny has found himself partnered with Ben Fanelli as the team’s top defensive pairing. Playing against the opposition’s best lines has gone a long way to bolstering his self-assurance.
“I feel more mobile and I feel fast, but more confident in my skating too. So I can be closer to the play or jump into the play more.”
Improving his foot speed is just one of the things Evan is aspiring to this season. With a few years and his fair share of adversity under his belt, he’s finding himself in a leadership role inside a young Rangers dressing room. McEneny says he was pretty quiet during his rookie season, preferring to watch players like Gabriel Landeskog to pick up tips to improve his game, but that doesn’t mean he’s not welcoming questions from this year’s crop of freshman talent.
“I think I’ve been around long enough to know what’s what,” he chuckles, adding, “I know how to prepare for games and some of the younger guys take those opportunities to ask questions. They’re looking up to you so it’s important to set a good example.”
And he’s also there to offer his advice when times are tough. Spending almost year away from the ice was difficult for a young blueliner with dreams of the NHL, but Evan refused to let his injury dampen his potential. Mild-mannered but determined, he got back to work and eventually inked a free agent contract with the Vancouver Canucks. The most important lesson he learned from the experience is one he’s happy to share.
“I would have loved for it not to have happened, obviously, but I did learn some things about myself. I learned that I can work through almost anything, just by pushing myself to get better. And in a way, the time off made me want it more, made me want to play more. I realized I couldn’t live without playing. So it was a tough time, when I was off, but I learned that this is what I want to do, for sure.”
There’s still plenty more to learn, and the Rangers defensive core have a new resource this season in Associate Coach (and former NHLer) Mike Van Ryn. McEneny is full of praise for the new face behind the bench and the potential he adds to the blue line.
“He just teaches you so many little things, things I would never even think about during the game. It’s little skating changes or body angles, different ways to approach the puck, different ways to approach the play and thinking about new things when you’re playing. He’s a smart guy; I’ve learned a lot from him already and it’s only been a couple of weeks.”
After a strong return in 2012-13 and a trip to Canucks training camp this fall, Evan has an air of determination about him, as though there’s still more work to be done. And, sure enough, he has no shortage of ambition for this season.
“I had a good season last year, but it was also my first year back from injury and I want to improve on that. I want to get better – to work on my skating and be able to be a guy that can shut down the other team’s top lines every game,” he shares, adding that he’s hoping to add more offence to fill the gap left by former captain Ryan Murphy.
He’s also confident in the team he’s now helping to lead. Like Fanelli, his goal is for the Rangers to shock a few naysayers and he’ll do whatever he can to make that happen.
“We’re a young team, and people think different things, but I would love for us to overachieve and go a long way in the playoffs – that would be great for everyone on the team,” explains McEneny with a smile.
“I want to be running the power play and using my offensive abilities to create plays and help the team win. I’d just like to be ‘the guy’, you know?”