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MacEachern has a few balls in the air during NHL's shutdown

Blue Jackets Blues Hockey

The Blues' Mackenzie MacEachern takes a shot in a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019, in St. Louis. (Jeff Roberson, Associated Press)

Nothing has been handed to Blues forward Mackenzie MacEachern, who’s had to scratch and claw for a roster spot and playing time on a talent-laden roster.

After getting drafted in the third round in 2012 out of Brother Rice High School near Detroit, MacEachern spent a year playing junior hockey in the United States Hockey League. Then he had three years at Michigan State and then 2½ years in the American Hockey League.

Not exactly the speed lane to the big leagues. At 25, MacEachern finally made his NHL debut. It came against Montreal, on Jan. 10, 201 — just three days after goalie Jordan Binnington’s first NHL start in a shutout of Philadelphia.

MacEachern played 29 games that season, even had a game-winning goal against Nashville, but was a healthy scratch for the Blues’ last 10 regular-season games and all 26 Stanley Cup playoff contests.

It looked like more of the same this season with MacEachern sitting out seven of the first eight contests.

“It’s definitely hard work to get there,” MacEachern told the Post-Dispatch. “It’s a Stanley Cup championship team, so it’s a tough roster to crack. This year, I started off not playing so much. But we have an unbelievable group of guys; it’s easy to come to the rink even with those circumstances.”

But starting with an Oct. 21 victory over Colorado, he played in 41 consecutive games.

“I just kind of ran with it, tried to do the best I could every day to make it hard for them to take me out,” MacEachern said.

A knee injury took him out, suffered on Jan. 18 against the Avalanche in the last game before the bye period and All-Star break.

Not full healthy after the break, MacEachern played in only six of the team’s next 19 games. And just when he’d worked himself back in the lineup, playing three consecutive games, the season was halted because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tough luck for sure, but he received a nice consolation prize last month: a two-year $1.8 million contract extension. It’s a one-way deal, meaning MacEachern gets $900,000 a year whether he’s in the NHL or AHL. Of course, he plans on never seeing the AHL again.

“When things get back going and we get over the pandemic, I’ll obviously go into the season — whenever it is — with a lot of confidence that they instilled in me by giving me two more years,” MacEachern said. “It’s nice to get a couple years, get a little security. I don’t have to think about it for a bit. I can just go out there and play free and play loose and have some fun with that.”

Physical presence

MacEachern has good size (6 feet 3, 205 pounds), skates well and isn’t afraid to throw his body around or drop the gloves. He led or shared the team lead in hits in six games. Blues players have been involved in only seven fights this season, and MacEachern had one of them — on Nov. 25, against Nashville’s Matt Irwin.

In his 51 games this season, he has seven goals (two game-winners) and three assists. Pretty good production for someone who averaged only nine minutes per game.

Playing for Craig Berube in the minors with the Chicago Wolves gave MacEachern an early idea of what the man who now is the Blues’ coach expected.

“He’s also stressed, even since my first year in Chicago, that a large percentage of the goals in the NHL, they’re scored in front of the net,” MacEachern said. “So I tried to take that to heart as I slowly progressed in my pro career.”

Nine of MacEachern’s 10 NHL goals have come from 17 feet or closer. The average distance of those nine goals? Just 10 feet from the net.

During the season, MacEachern lives in an apartment in the Central West End, not far from teammates Vince Dunn and Sammy Blais. Once the league suspended play, on March 12, MacEachern frequently met Dunn and Blais in Forest Park for rollerblading.

“I like the city,” MacEachern said. “It’s cool. It’s a little different. It’s got some history.”

Once it became clear that the NHL’s coronarvirus “pause” would be lengthy, MacEachern hopped in his Jeep Grand Cherokee and headed back to his normal offseason residence — a townhouse in Troy, Mich., near his parents’ home.

“I’ve seen ‘em once or twice from the window of the car,” MacEachern said.

The social distancing continued last week when the family did a drive-by birthday greeting for older brother Michael, beeping horns, yelling, and then heading back to their homes.

“This isn’t a good time right now,” MacEachern said. “Obviously we wish things were going different.”

Staying sharp

His knee is healthy and he feels mentally refreshed. He has taken up juggling — three tennis balls at a time — to sharpen his hand-eye coordination. He watched a YouTube tutorial on juggling to get him started.

“Our strength coach (Eric Renaghan) has been doing a good job keeping in touch with us,” MacEachern said. “Probably every two weeks he sends out a new program, a new list of movements or exercise he wants us to do.”

The instructions are tailored in part on what kind of equipment each player has at home. MacEachern purchased “a handful of dumbbells and a barbell with some weights,” and got a 10-yard strip of artificial turf from a friend. The turf gives him a surface to work out in his garage. That’s his gym.

An economics major, MacEachern has been waking up early and watching the business news and monitoring the stock market.

“That’s kind of been my thing as of late,” he said. “Keep the mind busy.”

For recreation, he’s part of a Fortnite group that at various times includes Dunn, Blais, Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou.

The youngsters do like the video games.

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