TORONTO – Not one forward in the NHL has logged more time on the penalty kill than the Leafs' Jay McClement. In fact, of the 10 players who boast the most shorthanded ice-time this season, nine are defencemen, the one exception being the 29-year-old from Kingston, Ontario.
Often the most unsung of tasks, but critical to team success, McClement has proven himself a very valuable weapon on the penalty kill for Randy Carlyle and the Leafs this season. After years of shorthanded futility – including a 29th place showing a year ago – the unit has quietly risen into the top half of the league, tied for 13th at 82.7 per cent (entering Tuesday's action), including a 91 per cent mark over the past 13 games.
McClement is front and centre to such improvement. He has logged nearly 83 minutes on the penalty kill this season – averaging about three and a half per night, most on the team – and yet has been on the ice for only five power-play goals against.
(While admittedly an imperfect measure, for comparison's sake, the Flyers' Max Talbot has totaled 78 minutes shorthanded, on the ice for five such power-play goals, the Islanders' Frans Nielsen has logged 70 himself and been out for eight, the Penguins' Craig Adams pushing 70 minutes, also on the ice for eight against).
On Monday night at the Air Canada Centre, in what evolved into a 4-2 victory for the Leafs, McClement logged nearly four and a half critical minutes on the penalty kill. The Devils power-play was halted on all four of its opportunities, including at key points late in the second when they still led by a goal at 2-1 and again in the final five minutes of the third when they trailed by two. McClement led the charge in each situation.
Three prominent qualities, according to Carlyle and teammates, seem to define his effectiveness in such duties; acute hockey intelligence, a whole host of experience and unmatched work ethic.
Knowledge through experience
McClement chalks up any effectiveness he's been able to achieve on the penalty kill to seven-plus years in the league. "I've done it a lot over my career so experience and learning the hard way," he said, "getting beat different ways, all kinds of different ways making mistakes; trying to learn from those. I've definitely done that over my career."
Knowledge is obviously tied to experience and in McClement's case it's been a matter of snatching up various "tricks" over the years. One such example of that savvy and intelligence, as he explained it, is "not always extending your stick the entire way, having a little bit more to give so you can bait him a little bit and then he tries to pass it maybe slide it out the last couple inches and try to get a piece of it. That's a tool and a skill is to try to use your stick and get the puck to go in the places that we want it to go."
Offering further insight into pressure tactics, he noted that "if one of the best passers in the league is looking at you with the puck on his stick, it's hard to pressure him because that's what he wants is just bait you in and then he's going to put it through you most of the time. There's reads like that too where you have to know who's got the puck and if it's on his forehand and he's looking at you that's probably what he wants."
With St. Louis for five-plus seasons, McClement was struck most by the work of Ryan Johnson, a veteran centre of over 700 games. "I learned a lot from him," said McClement of Johnson, who also played for Florida, Tampa, Vancouver and Chicago. "He was a little different style from me. He blocked a lot of shots and he would play a lot of goalie out at the point. I got to watch that for a couple years and got the opportunity when he went elsewhere."
"Obviously there's some pretty crafty guys he's going up against," Mike Kostka said of McClement, noting his anticipation and ability to clog shooting lanes, "and being able to read off them and not cheat, but be able to anticipate certain plays; that's a huge part of the penalty kill to be able to get a jump."
"It's hard to match what he does," added Tyler Bozak, who joins McClement as the faceoff artist on the Leafs top shorthanded tandem. "There's obviously times out there where I'll try and cheat for an offensive play or something like that and it's just habit for me, but he'll never do something like that."
'Dogged work ethic'
"The skill that he has is he outworks people," Carlyle said ahead of a Wednesday matchup with Ottawa. "People always talk about skill and it is a skill to be able to go out and show that dogged work ethic that he demonstrates day in, day out. That's what really separates him in a lot of situations."
"He does everything right, how it's supposed to be," Bozak concurred. "He's not going to cheat one bit. He's going to work as hard as he can and give you his full effort every single night, in and out, on and off the ice, in the room. He's great leader for us."
"He doesn't cut any corners in anything he does," noted Kostka. "It's easy when you start getting tired to circle a little bit or whatever and he's straight lines, stops and starts, willing to give that little bit extra which is obviously why he's so reliable."
"It's tough to do when you get tired," McClement said, "but it definitely gets you to the spot you need to be faster. That's when I get into trouble if I get away from that because then you're just circling out of where you need to be and it takes longer to get back."
The combination of "dogged work ethic" and veteran savvy has helped spark steady improvement in a penalty kill that had regularly hovered near the league basement in recent years. After a choppy start to the season, with new ingredients in the mix – 72 per cent in the first nine games – the unit has recently sizzled, to the aforementioned tune of 91 per cent (39-43) over the past 13 games.
While reluctant to assume credit, McClement deserves a great deal of it.