They say some pairs are just a match made in heaven.
While usually used to describe relationships between two people, such a saying would also be an apt description of veteran defenseman Jay McKee electing to join forces with the Penguins during the offseason after spending the previous three seasons with the St. Louis Blues.
Pittsburgh was in the market for a veteran, defensive-minded blue-liner who could both provide minutes to a penalty killing unit which finished ’08-09 ranked 8th in the National Hockey League with a kill rate of 82.7 percent, and pair with young, offensive-minded defenseman Alex Goligoski.
Through the first eight games of the regular season McKee has been everything the Penguins could have asked for and then some. Often a question during training camp, nary a syllable has been uttered about the Penguins losing three of their top-seven defensemen from last year’s group.
A veteran with 12 seasons under his belt prior to arriving in Pittsburgh, McKee began receiving rave reviews for his play during the team’s recent four-game sweep of a road trip that saw the Penguins play in Philadelphia, Toronto, Ottawa and Carolina in a short seven-day span. On the trip McKee established himself as a defensive stopper, blocking a total of 15 shots while amassing a plus-5 rating, both strong indicators of the shutdown ability McKee brings to his own end.
“In terms of personal stats, you certainly want to be doing the correct things in that department, but that’s not something I look too much at,” McKee said of the gaudy defensive numbers he posted during the road trip. “Regardless of who scores, gets the blocked shots or makes the saves, as long as we win, that’s the most important thing.”
Another important element of the trip for McKee was the chance to bond with a new group of guys. Having spent the previous three seasons in St. Louis and the nine before that with the Buffalo Sabres, being the new guy isn’t something McKee is all that familiar with.
Regardless of who scores, gets the blocked shots or makes the saves, as long as we win, that’s the most important thing. - Jay McKee
“I think it’s nice because, not that the guys need to be forced to hang out, but guys get to have dinner together and have some laughs. For me, these guys in this room have been exceptional in making me feel very welcome here, but it’s still nice. When we came back here (Thursday) I almost missed them a bit.
“It was fun to get out on the road with the guys and get some dinners and hang out. Obviously coming back with a bunch of wins is the most important thing. That was important for us early in the season to have a good road trip and to set the standard for what we expect in the upcoming months.”
The Penguins can expect great things to continue in the coming months with the standard McKee has set through the first couple weeks of October. Even though he is not contributing highlight-reel plays like teammates Sidney Crosby
and Evgeni Malkin
, head coach Dan Bylsma has been impressed with what McKee brings to the table.
“I think at the end of the day we all get a little more excited about a nice goal than a blocked shot,” Bylsma said when asked about McKee after practice Sunday. “But I think good teams have different pieces and people add in different ways. You just can’t all go out and get 50 goals in a year. You need different pieces, and you need players to add to that part of the team.
“When you do, it builds up your team and puts energy into your team. When guys are going out and laying it on the line, blocking shots like that, those are players doing what they do, bringing it to the table and laying it on the line.”
A large piece of the equation to the Penguins’ early success has been how well McKee and Goligoski have meshed as a pairing. They form a consummate defense pairing, with McKee staying home as the defensive anchor as Goligoski displays his offensive talents.
“Each guy is doing their role,” Bylsma said. “They are two completely different hockey players, but they are making a nice pairing right now. Each guy is showing up and bringing their particular assets.
“Jay continues to show he can block shots on the penalty kill but he is also defending real well in the zone. Alex continues to be a factor with this skating. It’s turned out to be a nice pair right now.”
McKee says he enjoys playing with the talented youngster because even though the two felt comfortable playing with each other from the get-go, they now have even more chemistry out on the ice because they are at the point where they are thinking the same way, which helps knowing where the other is going to be, and what he is going to do, both with and without the puck.
Goligoski credits the pairs’ communication on the ice as a key to their success.
“I think it has been good so far,” Goligoski said. “We have a (good) sample size. We will see where it goes from here but so far so good. We have formed a pretty good relationship here. I think just getting to know each other and talking a lot on the ice, things just fall into place.”
Speaking of falling into place, the Penguins’ penalty-killing unit has picked up where it left off last season, killing 83.7 percent of the penalties called against them, thanks in large part to McKee’s contributions. He averages 3:14 of ice time when the Penguins are down a man. He takes great pride in the work of that unit.
“I think we have a lot of guys in this room who take a lot of pride in what we do on the penalty kill. It’s not just going out there and just trying to get it done. If we get scored on a lot of guys get real angry with what happened. That’s a good thing to have. There are a lot of great guys on the penalty kill. We want to be tops in the league and we are going to strive for that.”
McKee’s next chance to help the penalty kill become tops in the league will be Tuesday night when his former Blues’ teammates visit Mellon Arena for a 7:00 p.m. faceoff. He is eager to face his former squad.
“It’ll be fun. I had that opportunity (to play against my former team) when I played against Buffalo (while with St. Louis). It’s a neat feeling going against a bunch of guys you battled hard with. I think it adds a fun element to the game.”