Ten points and a plus-6 in 14 games. Just about any player would be proud of those numbers. Imagine how 22-year-old defenseman Jamie McBain
Those are the totals that the talented rearguard posted in his first taste of NHL action, starting with his debut on March 16. Having been a junior at the University of Wisconsin just one year earlier, it’s safe to say that his transition to the professional game has been quicker than expected.
“When you get called up you kind of want to make a statement for yourself and give yourself the best opportunity to get yourself noticed,” he said.
It was hard not to notice McBain on the ice. Long thought to have the offensive tools needed to play extensively on an NHL power play, McBain was used in all situations during his time with the Hurricanes. Amazingly, the already-extensive 19:42 of ice time he logged in his first game ended up being a season low, as he nearly hit 30 minutes on several other occasions.
Although the sample size was much smaller, by the end of the regular season he led all rookies in average time on ice, ahead of a few other highly-touted defensemen in Calder Trophy favorite Tyler Myers of Buffalo and 2009’s second overall draft pick, Victor Hedman of Tampa Bay.
“The plays that he’s made off the line with his head up, that we had hoped was there because we knew he was an offensive guy,” said coach Paul Maurice. “I think we’re surprised with how easily he’s been able to translate that up to this game, but the bigger concern is his own end of the ice, making his reads and closing the gaps. I think that might be the area that I’m most pleased with him.”
The Hurricanes have long coveted McBain, whom they drafted 63rd overall in 2006, as their top defensive prospect. That being said, they probably did not expect so much so soon. The player himself doesn’t necessarily feel that way, as he displays just the right mix of modesty and confidence in his own abilities.
“It is and it isn’t,” he said when asked whether he found his fast start to be a surprise. “I know the caliber of player that I am, and when you play with the Staal’s and the Whitney’s you make yourself so much better. A lot of times you give them passes and they’ll do the boatload of the work and put in chances that maybe don’t go in at other levels. When you’re around guys like that, it makes it easy on me.”
While it’s simple to look at the way McBain played after his recall and wonder where he was during the team’s early-season struggles, it’s important to note the strides that he has made throughout this year. Having only played 10 American Hockey League games coming into this year, he took some time to adjust to the professional game.
”If there’s a silver lining to this year it’s that we were able to have Jamie McBain develop in Albany for the first half,” said Jason Karmanos, the Hurricanes’ vice president and assistant general manager. “The fact of the matter is that he played OK in the first part of the year, but he wasn’t playing like this.”
“With any level there’s a little bit of a learning curve coming in and feeling out what you can and can’t get away with,” said McBain. “You learn people’s tendencies and you learn your own capabilities as well. In the second half of the year in Albany I started to really feel comfortable and my confidence was at an all-time high when I got called up.”
That confidence was perhaps most evident in his last home game of the season, when he sent a crisp cross-ice pass through traffic to Eric Staal for a power play goal against Montreal. Few players his age even attempt that pass, much less defensemen. Video here:
”He makes that pass, I’m in shock and (TSN television analyst) Pierre McGuire is absolutely losing his mind in between the benches because he’s seen a lot of those defensemen,” said Maurice. “To have a guy do that at a young age is pretty exciting. You never know what the end potential is and you try not to get too excited, but he’s done some pretty good things with that puck.”
Despite how well everything has gone up to this point, McBain’s toughest challenge yet may be coming up with an encore.
“A lot of the older guys joke with me about that,” he said, shaking his head.
The Ray Whitney’s of the team – and really, who else could he have been referring to? – can make those jabs, but there’s an element of truth there as well. Given how rapidly McBain has adjusted and improved, the curse of his start may be that he’s not only expected to repeat what he’s already done but possibly even improve upon that.
“From what we’ve seen, we have to assume that he’s only going to get better,” said Maurice. “That’s the pressure that these kids are under, because you have to come back and do it again.”
Although restricted free agents Brett Carson and Alexandre Picard are likely to be resigned and in the fold next year, the Hurricanes enter the offseason with only two experienced NHL defensemen under contract in Tim Gleason and Joni Pitkanen. Jay Harrison and Brian Pothier are unrestricted free agents.
That should open the door for McBain to earn a spot on next year’s team out of training camp, provided that he proves his exciting start was no fluke.
The Hurricanes don’t believe that it was.
“Anybody can get hot for 10 games, though we don’t believe that’s what we’re seeing here,” said Maurice. “We don’t think we’re just seeing a guy that’s been lucky or hot. We think he’s that good.”
“You want to give yourself the best opportunity to come into training camp and put your best foot forward,” said McBain. “I feel pretty good about the position I’ve put myself in, but it’s coming back to having to a great offseason and not being complacent or satisfied with what I’ve done.”