Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Jay McKee is the definition of NHL-tough. A solid defensive defenseman, McKee currently leads the NHL in blocked shots with 36 through 11 games. He also plays a physical role beside young offensive defenseman Alex Goligoski, kills penalties and stands up for his teammates.
McKee is in his 13th NHL season, but his first with the Penguins. He played nine seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, leading the NHL with 241 hits in 2005-06, before signing a lucrative, four-year deal with the St. Louis Blues starting in 2006-07. Always a hardy player in Buffalo, McKee suffered a broken hand in his first Blues' season and played only 23 games. He played two more seasons in St. Louis, but the Blues bought out the last year of his contract last summer.
McKee's availability was attractive to the Penguins, who had to rebuild after defensive stalwarts Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi signed as free agents with Montreal and Los Angeles, respectively. Scuderi and Gill were on the ice in the final minute of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final as the Penguins defended a one-goal lead against the Detroit Red Wings. They also led Pittsburgh in penalty-killing ice time.
McKee signed a one-year deal with Pittsburgh, stepping into an opportunity seemingly made for his skill set, one that could give him a chance to win his first Stanley Cup.
"I take a lot of pride in the penalty kill, that's an important part of my game," McKee told NHL.com. "I'm not coming in here to change the chemistry. I just want to come in and do what I do best, play sound, consistent defense.
"Coach (Dan) Bylsma put it pretty well; the new guys here aren't replacing anybody. We're just new guys coming to the team. (Forwards) Petr Sykora and Miro Satan are two others who have gone. There's a different dynamic to the team. I have an offensive partner in Alex Goligoski. It's a different team with different players. That happens every year. I feel very fortunate to be here and I'm going to do my best with the opportunity."Craig Adams
was on the ice with Gill and Scuderi at the end of that Stanley Cup Final and knows the challenge McKee faces in Pittsburgh. Adams is Pittsburgh's second-leading forward in penalty-kill time.
"The thing I noticed the most when I was playing against him when he was in Buffalo was that he blocks everything," Adams said. "It's tough to play against and it's nice to have. Looking at the guys we lost on defense, Jay will be a big part of replacing those guys and be one of our defensive stoppers."
Adams, a nine-year pro, has been around long enough to remember when McKee was a wild and exciting open-ice hitter, but sometimes those hits were gambles that didn't pay off. McKee doesn't throw the big check as often now, but they are better-timed and more effective.
"In our first game against the Rangers (Oct. 2), he stepped up on a guy, we didn't keep the puck in the zone but they turned it over in the middle of the ice," Adams recalled. "Jay delivered the hit, we turned it around and went in and scored and won the game. It was a little play, but it didn't go unnoticed."
"Hits, you have to be careful now," McKee said. "I remember when I was younger, you could run around trying to hit everything that moved and if a guy squeezed by you, throw the hook on him and you haven't lost that much. Now, there isn't as much hitting, but I think the hits are bigger because guys line you up better."
The changes in rules and enforcement in 2005, banning holding, hooking and interference, changed the way teams defend their net. The current strategy is to clog the middle and permit long shots from the perimeter. Defenders try to block those shots before they get to the net.
"I think that's a big part of it," McKee said. "I know before the lockout, six or seven years ago, there was a lot more holding, a lot more hooking, so guys would be more inclined to going out to a guy, trying to hit him. If that guy got by, throw the big hook on him and a lot of times that would be allowed. Now, guys are so skilled, you don't want to go running out to a player and have him squeeze by you. If he squeezes by you, it's a footrace to the net.
"You can't hook or hold so players are learning more and more that angles and positioning are more important, with the calls they make now."
McKee became a big hit with his new teammates in the second regular-season game, Oct. 3, against their Atlantic Division rival, the New York Islanders. Teammate Ruslan Fedotenko, carrying the puck, took a big hit from Islanders' defenseman Brendan Witt at the offensive blue line. Witt repelled retaliations by Evgeni Malkin
and Pascal Dupuis
until McKee came in and muscled Witt up and down the boards.
Witt is recognized as one of the NHL's strongest men, so McKee's teammates had to be impressed not only with his willingness to defend them but also his ability.
"It's great playing with Jay and see him sticking up for teammates," Goligoski said. "He's a great shotblocker and great defensively. He's a pleasure to play with. There's definitely things I can learn from him, like the way he manages the game. There's things I can be better at that he's already great at. We talk a lot on the ice and we're comfortable with each other."
"That's a team that we're going to play a lot," McKee said. "It was a clean hit, a nice hit by Brendan, but you want to make a point that over the season, you don't want guys running at your players. If the message got across, fine. If not, that's the way it works. I've been on the opposite end of that quite a bit, where I make a good, clean hit and someone jumps in.
"It's a part of the game, part of the tradition, fighting is a part of the sport that the game was built upon. I want to let the guys know that I do that. There're a lot of younger guys here that may not know what I do here. I want them to know that I've got their back, whenever needed."
"I don't think Jay McKee is known for the fighting element of his game," Bylsma said. "But he's a very good teammate, a defensive defenseman and PK guy. I want to reiterate the quality of teammate that he is, on the bench, on the ice and sticking up for his teammates. He showed that definitely against the Islanders. Early on with the Penguins, he made a statement about where's at and what he's ready to bring."
Shot-blocking can be dangerous to one's health but it's a necessary part of the modern game. McKee is not only one of the best and most active shot-blockers, he's one of the smartest, knowing when to do it and how. He's one of the best for younger players to watch.
"Shotblocking in the game has changed in the last few years," McKee said. "The thing that stood out, the thing that made me focus on the change was when Lindy Ruff, my coach in Buffalo, pointed out that the Tampa Bay Lightning led the League in blocked shots when they won the Stanley Cup in 2004. That impressed me and a lot of players.
"If a shot gets by you, it's got a chance to go straight in, be tipped in, be rebounded in, so if you can get in front of it, keep it in front of you and start the play going the other way, it's been noticeably effective. Guys take a lot of pride in it, just like the penalty kill. We take a lot of pride in keeping the puck away from the net."