UTICA – Evan McEneny’s comfort level continues to grow.
That’s important for the 24-year-old Utica Comets defenseman, who was unable to play at this time a year ago after suffering a major knee injury in a game against Laval that required surgery and a lengthy recovery away from the game.
McEneny returned to the Comets’ lineup this season and has made progress, playing in all but two of the team’s 25 games this season.
“It is always tough being out that long. Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on how you want to say it – I’ve had one before, so I knew what to expect,” said McEneny, referring to the ACL he tore in his left knee during his 2011-12 juniors season. “Coming back, you want to be comfortable on the ice just skating and not having to think about it.
“Maybe early in the season I was thinking about my knee and maybe a little worried about ‘is it ready?’ At this point, I don’t think about it anymore. So, that’s the biggest thing. Getting more into the system and the way the team plays, I’m getting more comfortable, too. … Getting back into hockey is just getting easier and easier every day.”
McEneny admits to wondering during recovery if he could return to the same form as two seasons ago when he had 23 points with Utica and made his NHL debut with the parent Vancouver Canucks.
Following a Comets’ optional practice Thursday, McEneny said he feels “better than I ever have.”
“All we ever want to do is play hockey. Being on the ice is the greatest job in the world. For awhile there, I thought I might not be able to do it much longer,” said McEneny, who was also limited by an elbow injury in 2015-16. “But, being out there with the guys, it is great. … I’m confident. It’s going well. I just want to keep it going.”
After an injury to rookie Olli Juolevi, McEneny has recently stepped up for the Comets, who are 4-5-0-1 in the last 10 games. McEneny is playing a special teams role and has tried to add a physical element to his game. He has nine points in the last 10 games.
“I think what we see is him progressing,” said Comets associate coach Gary Agnew, who works with the team’s defensemen. “He’s trending in the right direction in that his mind is getting faster, his plays are getting quicker. I think there’s a tendency at the start (when) your timing is off, you’re not used to the pace and things are happening as a blur. Then, the game slows down back to where you were again. I think we see Evan trending in that fashion.”
McEneny knows there’s work to do, especially on a team that has an AHL-worst minus-22 goal differential.
“I’ve always felt that offense comes natural and defense is something you have to work at and you have to compete every night to be a good defensive player. Offense you take your chances when they come, but defense is always first,” said McEneny, who has a minus-17 rating this season. “We’ve been working a lot on our defensive zone. It even comes down to our offensive play and making smart decisions down there. … Just details all over the ice will help our D a lot.”