Usually a wasteland reserved for long-term projects, underachievers and question marks, you normally would be hard pressed to find any value in the 7th round of the NHL draft. For every Henrik Zetterberg or Joe Pavelski, there are countless players selected in the 7th round that never come close to suiting up in an NHL game. However, while the odds may be stacked against them, the Florida Panthers may have found their very own 7th round gem in 19-year-old defenseman Mackenzie Weegar.
Already a success story in his own right, Weegar’s path to the Panthers was hardly paved with gold as the young defenseman has seemingly had a cloud of adversity hanging over his head much like so many rain clouds that hover over the Sunshine State.
After two consecutive years of going unnoticed and un-drafted by the OHL, a disappointed Weegar made his way to waivers. With his hockey future in doubt, Weegar’s career found new life when the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies selected him first overall in the OHL waiver draft. Soon thereafter, Halifax Mooseheads’ General Manager, Cam Russell, completed a trade for Weegar, sending a 2012, 9th round pick to the Huskies. Even though he had finally made it to the QMJHL, Weegar made the decision to return to Ontario to play Junior A in the CCHL for the Nepean Raiders. After tasting success with the Raiders, Weegar made a mid-season decision to commit to Halifax for the 2012-13 season.
To call Weegar’s first season with Halifax a success would be a grave understatement. On a team filled with some of the 2013 NHL Draft’s top picks like Nathan Mackinnon (1st overall) and Jonathan Drouin (3rd overall), Weegar was able to stand out on his own as he developed his game as an offensive defenseman. In 62 regular season games, Weegar scored 44 points (8G, 36A) and earned an outstanding +55 rating while still adjusting to the QMJHL game.
With his inaugural season in the QMJHL a grand success, Weegar headed into the 2013 NHL Draft with hopes of finally making his hockey dreams come true. Although he played a crucial part on Halifax’s Memorial Cup winning team, it’s safe to say that Weegar was most certainly overshadowed by the incredible stars that his team possessed. Luckily for the Panthers, this possible league-wide negligence of Weegar’s newly found success played perfectly into the Cats’ hands as the draft dragged on into the later rounds.
Although they originally did not have a 7th round pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, the Panthers fired up the phone lines and traded back into the 7th round – sending their 2014 7th round pick to the Montreal Canadiens in return. With the 206th pick in hand, the Panthers selected their very own “Mr. Irrelevant”, taking Weegar with their final pick of the evening.
While it may have been easy for some to turn a blind eye to the Panthers’ 7th round pick, Weegar’s selection was a culmination of years of adversity and overcoming the voice in so many of our heads that tells us what we can and cannot do.
“Just battling through adversity – I’ve done it for a long time,” Weegar said when asked what was the key to him getting to this point in his career. “I cleared waivers in the “O” (OHL) and now all of the sudden I’m playing exhibition games in Florida. I’ve come a long way and just facing adversity has been the key”.
After impressive showings at both developmental and rookie camp, Weegar headed into the Panthers’ training camp with expectations not usually reserved for a 7th round draft pick. After just a few days of training camp it became clear that Weegar wasn’t going to regress from the player that had caught the eyes of both coaches and management. Weegar’s exceptional efforts during training camp were finally rewarded when Panthers’ Head Coach Kevin Dineen opted to give Weegar the start alongside Dmitry Kulikov in the Panthers’ pre-season game against the Nashville Predators on September 16th.
“It was a lot of fun starting with Kulikov, but I enjoyed it and I am going to learn from this first exhibition game,” Weegar said while trying to contain a smile. “It was a good opportunity. I never expected to start, but I got my nerves out first shift. They were coming on us pretty hard in the defensive zone and we did our best to get the puck out and I thought we did a pretty good job.”
Making the most of his opportunity, Weegar earned 1 assist in the Panthers’ 3-2 overtime victory against the Predators. While Weegar’s assist alone may be cause for praise, the biggest statistic for Weegar’s debut was his 26:19 minutes played – good enough for most on the entire Panthers’ roster that night.
One person who took note of Weegar’s excellent debut was Panthers’ Head Coach Kevin Dineen.
“Mackenize (Weegar) really had a good game,” Dineen said of the young defenseman’s debut. “In rookie camp there were no guarantees or preconceived ideas on who was going to advance onto this (training) camp so he earned a way into this camp and he earned his way into the lineup tonight and I thought he had a very solid game.”
With his first NHL training camp now behind him, a reinvigorated Weegar will now return to Halifax to complete his final year of junior hockey eligibility. Even though the Mooseheads will now be without two of their top-scoring forwards from last season, Nathan Mackinnon and Jonathan Drouin, players like Weegar and goaltender Zach Fucale are ready to bring another Memorial Cup to Halifax.
“The pressure is going to be on and we have some good guys coming back like (Zach) Fucale who just signed. I know having him back there will take the pressure off me a little bit and hopefully I can play that offensive role like I did last year,” Weegar said.
Once just another name in a pool of young defenseman, Weegar will enter next year’s training camp with hopes of earning his first NHL contract and a spot on the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage. Even though his future in hockey still remains uncertain, Weegar’s progress thus far proves that you never truly know what you may get in return when you take a chance on a 7th round pick.
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