There were certainly bigger names available in free agency.
But when Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis, then acting as Brian Burke’s right-hand man, sat down with their pro scouts in the summer, the one player they kept coming back to was an unfamiliar one for most hockey fans.
They wanted Jay McClement.
And they wanted him to fill a void as what his former coach Andy Murray calls “the stopper.”
“The more and more we went over our list, the more his name came up,” Nonis said.
After seven seasons and 553 NHL games, McClement’s name has hardly become a household one. The Kingston, Ont., native has only 63 goals, 114 assists and is a minus-76 over that span, with the latter statistic putting him second last out of every player since the 2004-05 lockout.
It’s a number, however, that reveals more of an issue with the overvalued stat than the player, as McClement has been one of the better defensive forwards in the league in recent years.
Consider a few of his other, less-heralded numbers.
In 2008-09, McClement’s first year with a big role with Murray’s St. Louis Blues, he played more minutes shorthanded than any forward not named Sammy Pahlsson on the third-best penalty kill in the league.
A year later, he moved to first overall – with more than 300 minutes logged – and the Blues were first in the category.
Then there’s his work in a shutdown role at even strength. According to behindthenet.ca, McClement was on the ice against the ninth and 14th most difficult opponents in those two seasons, as his coach ran the checking centre out against other teams’ top lines again and again.
Not to mention the fact he was, at some points, taking nearly twice as many faceoffs in the defensive zone as the offensive one.
That wasn’t always pretty for his plus-minus, but Murray insists that checking line was often his best and more important one, something he envisions Leafs coach Randy Carlyle trying to create with McClement in Toronto.
“He just does the right things all the time,” Murray said. “You need players like Jay on any team. I know a couple of GMs called me last year at the trade deadline and were looking at him.
“Sure he’s not going to score the goals for you. But he’ll do everything else that helps you win.”
Without top-tier players that excel at both offensive and defensive roles, Murray explained, sometimes it’s better to rely on specialists at both ends of the rink.
In other words, the Leafs could use a McClement-led shutdown line – just as Carlyle did to great effect with Pahlsson during the Anaheim Ducks’ 2007 Cup run – against other teams’ stars and keep their defensively suspect snipers like Phil Kessel or Joffrey Lupul protected.
“When you’re young, like we were in St. Louis, you’re not good enough to play power on power,” Murray said. “You cannot play your top players against the best teams’ top players. We needed a line that had the responsibility of making sure that we defended our game.
“He also put up some numbers. The reason was that sometimes the top units on the other teams didn’t play defence.”
Asked about fitting into Carlyle’s system at Leafs training camp on Tuesday, McClement said his enduring memory of his new coach is of his titanic battles with Murray in attempting to match lines.
Every time Ryan Getzlaf would hop off the Ducks bench, McClement knew he would be, too.
“There were a lot of games going on and I was on the other side of that,” McClement said. “[Carlyle] knows me as well as he could without coaching me.”
“Randy is as much of a matchup coach as you’ll ever see,” Murray added.
McClement, 29, has bounced around a little of late. After Murray was fired in 2010, he was dealt to Colorado, where he wasn’t used in that “stopper” role and received a lot less than the 17-plus minutes a game he often did in St. Louis.
Nonis, however, believes there’s that opportunity here in a homecoming. It’s clear, for one, that the Leafs organization views McClement much more highly than other checker types they’ve brought into the fold in the past, especially with Carlyle attempting to implement a more defensive style.
He will likely be an integral part in that transformation, as he’ll be asked to absorb difficult minutes at even strength and help fix what’s become a perennially last place penalty kill.
Even if McClement can have a hand in shaving off 10 or 15 goals against, his $1.5-million salary will be well spent.
“He can cancel out the other team’s top lines because he gets around the ice pretty good,” Nonis said, noting McClement is a fitness fanatic who has already impressed the staff in the gym. “He’s also smart. He knows where to go. And he’s not just a checker.
“The one thing that Randy does is he doesn’t just play six forwards. He usually plays nine and the third line is a very important part of the team. They’re not players that are just afterthoughts. If you look at how his teams have played in the past, those players are very important to their success. And we needed an upgrade there.”