TORONTO – The cat and mouse game between the two head coaches was furious.
"They would change and then we would change and it was kind of back and forth for a couple games," Jay McClement recalled with a chuckle to TSN.ca. "I remember a couple times in Anaheim where it was almost comical."
Then a member of the Blues checking unit – where he played for six seasons – McClement was tasked by then-St. Louis coach Andy Murray to shut down the feared Anaheim duo of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, managed of course in those days by current Leafs bench boss Randy Carlyle. Because both coaches were maniacal line matchers there was a good bit of chaos on the ice. Any time Perry and Getzlaf flew over the boards, McClement and his linemates would do the same. If the Ducks weapons jumped off, the St. Louis triumvirate would follow suit.
"We'd have to change right after the faceoff was dropped," McClement remembered. "We were taking a lot of five, six second shifts."
Fast forward to July 1, 2012, the annual kickoff to NHL free agency.
An unrestricted free agent after a year and a half in Colorado, McClement knew that Toronto was one of two teams with serious interest. The Carlyle factor proved to be a significant factor in his decision-making process. McClement was well aware of the Sudbury, Ontario native's penchant for line matching and the high value he placed on checking units – he saw firsthand how the former Ducks coach engaged the trio of Sammy Pahlsson, Travis Moen and Rob Niedermayer – of which McClement was particularly versed in. "I was obviously the type of player that they had targeted," he said. "And on my side of it, it was like you said, I was excited to play for a coach like Randy. I knew that I could have success under his coaching style and his systems." Growing up two and a half hours down the road in Kingston, Ontario, the Toronto factor was also particularly alluring.
McClement signed for two years and from that point forward, he and Carlyle – along with other members of the coaching staff – began to communicate on the regular, carving out expectations and getting to know one another a little bit better. "For me personally, it was just what they expect of me as far as being a leader," said the soft-spoken McClement. "Because we have such a young team that [would] be something I'd be looked upon to do, be a leader and lead by example." Following those lines, it was before the season opener in Montreal that Carlyle informed McClement of his role as the Leafs third alternate captain, subbing in, if necessary, for Clarke MacArthur and Joffrey Lupul.
On Tuesday at First Niagara Center in Buffalo – wearing a letter and playing on the wing with Mikhail Grabovski and Nik Kulemin – McClement had what Carlyle deemed to be the best game of his early Toronto tenure, scoring once in the Leafs thrilling 4-3 overtime win.
McClement's current role is still taking shape though.
While he leads all Leaf players in shorthanded ice-time – the Toronto penalty kill is quietly ranked 14th at 80 per cent – his fit in the forward complement is admittedly complicated by the composition of the roster. Lacking the proper ingredients for that old-school shutdown line and seeing the need to find ice for the likes of Nazem Kadri – the club's early season scoring leader – Carlyle has plugged McClement mostly into fourth line duty – 13 minutes on average – usually alongside Colton Orr and Mike Brown. That could and probably should change. One of few on the roster with strong defensive credentials, quick legs and a touch of skill, McClement is a seasoned vet who – with more ice-time – could help stabilize the sometimes icy waters of a young club, especially defensively.
Against the Sabres, he logged a season-high 17 minutes and was quite effective, not only scoring his first goal as a Leaf, but helping curb the efforts of Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, and Cody Hodgson, Buffalo's number one line.