Chance encounter brings McKee out of hockey funk
Jay McKee was telling a story about helping his mother move during the lockout.
As they boxed up stuff and prepared to move her into her new place in the Kingston, Ontario, area, not far from where McKee grew up, the Buffalo defenseman noticed a collection of old sticks he'd used as a junior player. He picked them up and marveled at how comfortable they felt, like finding a favored pair of sneakers or T-shirt or long-lost album collection.
McKee grabbed a couple of those sticks and took them to his current stick company's rep and said, hey, build me some of these.
"I took a look at them right away and was blown away," McKee said. "Looking at those, it was night and day."
When the current season started, McKee found he was sharper moving the puck, making passes he hadn't been able to or had the confidence to attempt in recent years.
"It was night and day the confidence in handling the pucks. After eight years, I didn't feel I could handle the puck as good as I used to," the 28-year-old said. "It felt like junior again almost. It felt so good handling the puck, just added confidence. I felt like I had so much more time. The puck wasn't bouncing off my stick. So I'm real happy my mom moved, I guess."
Jay McKee was telling a story about the serendipity of finding old sticks and how it relates to this magical season. But he might just as well have been telling a story about finding himself again.
In a season that saw many veteran players, especially defensemen, lose their way, become irrelevant or, worse, liabilities, McKee has become a shining example of a player who has emerged as not just capable, but crucial.
Former NHL coach and one of the game's top analysts, Pierre McGuire, lights up when McKee's name is brought up.
"He's my favorite player," McGuire told ESPN.com.
McKee has been able to adjust and thrive in the new NHL because he can skate, McGuire said.
"He's an underrated puck-mover, fearless shot-blocker. His confidence level is so much higher than it used to be," McGuire said.
There was a time not so long ago when McKee appeared to be on the cusp of something approaching stardom.
The Sabres drafted McKee 14th overall in 1995, a pick they acquired in a trade with Vancouver that sent Russian star Alexander Mogilny to the Canucks. Later, in the summer of 2001, McKee was a surprise invitee to Canada's orientation camp in Calgary in advance of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
The invitation was extended by executive director Wayne Gretzky, and instantly elevated McKee, at least in Canada, to the status of quasi-celebrity.
McGuire recalled asking Gretzky why he'd tapped McKee for the camp.
"I remember Wayne saying, 'I invited him because he used to drive me nuts,'" McGuire said. "It was the ultimate compliment."
McKee did not make the Olympic team, which really wasn't a surprise given the Canadians' depth along the blue line. But in subsequent years, it appeared as though McKee's game had gone into decline or at least hit a plateau.
But the new rules and the time away during the lockout helped rekindle his burn for the game, and McKee has been a force for a very good Buffalo team that many expect will give the top-seeded Ottawa Senators fits in their second-round playoff series.
"I'm not surprised at how well he's done," McGuire said.
"I think that Jay's value has been tremendous," added Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. "His shot-blocking, his special-teams work, his penalty killing. I also think that he's worked hard on improving the offensive side of the game, of trying to get involved more on the rush in our system. And particularly just breakout plays where we've been pretty demanding on trying to make nice plays leaving the zone, it's tape-to-tape passes. That area he's taken some pride in."
On a Buffalo team that has forged its success on a team-first mentality, McKee's willingness to do anything, including blocking shots, has been a constant reminder of the payment such success demands.
McKee was the runaway leader in blocked shots this season with 241 and got in the way of 16 more during the Sabres' first-round series victory over Philadelphia.
"I don't know about badge of honor. Some of the guys were joking, saying that the league might send me a golden shin-pad for blocking so many shots," McKee said with a smile. "I just want to do whatever I can do to help the team win. Blocking shots, hitting guys, whatever it is that I can do to help, I'll do. If a shot's hitting me, it's not going in the net. Not usually."
The interesting thing about McKee's emergence as a shot-blocking fiend is that it reflects an impressive understanding of the game's evolution. Early in the season, he said, he struggled with the new enforcement and had to adjust.
"I found myself in the penalty box early in the season just being over-physical in front of the net. Trying to push guys out of the way," McKee explained. "I started blocking more shots, not being so physical in front of the net. It was something I always did. But I think more so this year than ever."
It is one thing to say, "I will block shots to help the team." It is quite another to defy the natural human reaction to get the heck out of the way of a piece of rubber traveling at 90 miles per hour.
"There's some players that won't do what Jay does," Ruff acknowledged. "You're getting in 5-on-3 situations and, we'll use Atlanta, you know that [Ilya] Kovalchuk's going to be one-timing pucks and Jay will just stand there and take it, just stand in the [shooting] lane just as if he's a goalie and say 'Go ahead and hit me.'
"There's some guys that get up on their tippy-toes and turn sideways in those situations. And Jay turns face-first and says, 'Go ahead and hit me.' You can't teach that."
Rookie netminder Ryan Miller has been the beneficiary of McKee's ability and willingness to stand in front of pucks being blasted toward the Sabre net.
"It's almost like a partnership," Miller said. "I know Jay's going to stand in the shooting lane and I can pay attention to other options."
In other words, Miller has enough confidence that McKee's not going to bail out so the goalie can cheat toward another player if there's a pass or take a different angle on the shot, increasing the chance the puck won't end up in the net.
"If you don't go for the block, that's when goalies get mad," Miller explained. "I don't know what it is. There's something about him."
Blocking shots is both functional and emotional.
Like a big hit or a timely goal, a blocked shot, especially while killing a penalty, can give a team a tremendous emotional lift. For a team like Buffalo that thrives on the turnover and the counter-attack, a blocked shot is often a conduit to a scoring chance at the other end of the ice.
"You have to block shots for our system to work," Miller said.
Whether it started with his mother's move or it was just something destined to be on its own, it seems clear both the Sabres' system and McKee are on the right track.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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