Penguins find defensive answer in Jay McKee

October, 12, 2009

It was back in June at the NHL awards in Las Vegas when your humble hockey hack ran into Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero after the show.

It didn't take long before the conversation centered on Rob Scuderi. Sure, Shero was still basking in the glow of his first Stanley Cup title as GM, but the work had already begun. He already knew that night he had little chance of keeping Scuderi.

That's because seven core Pittsburgh players -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Sergei Gonchar, Marc-Andre Fleury, Brooks Orpik and Chris Kunitz -- take up $39.375 million of the $56.8 million salary cap. That leaves about $17 million left in cap space for 16 or so players.

Los Angeles' offer for Scuderi -- a four-year deal worth $3.4 million a season -- was impossible for Pittsburgh to match. The Pens also lost defenseman Hal Gill, who took a two-year deal worth $2.25 million a season from Montreal.

Suddenly, the Pens were down two of the six defensemen from Game 7 of the Cup finals in Detroit, and there wasn't a lot of cap room to replace them. One solution was easy. Alex Goligoski would get every chance to make the club, and so far he's impressed. His $1.83 million cap number also fits the bill.

Then came July 10, when Shero found the ultimate bargain in Jay McKee, a quality veteran defender who had just been bought out by the St. Louis Blues. One year, $800,000. Perfect.

For McKee, he could afford the pay cut. He still gets $2.66 million from the $4 million he was originally supposed to make this season in St. Louis. So in reality, he's making $3.466 million this season.

McKee was looking for the best possible fit, not just the best possible contract. He had Pittsburgh on his mind all the way.

"It was a real easy decision for me," McKee told over the weekend. "I had my eye on this team when I was unrestricted. I know they had just an incredible year last season; everything came together for them. When that happens, it's tough to keep the whole team together. So Gill and Scuderi left, [and] that was kind of the style of game that I have. I'm fortunate that Mr. Shero liked what I brought to the table."

Watching Saturday's game in Toronto, where the Penguins manhandled the Maple Leafs, it seemed McKee had more blocked shots than Fleury had saves. McKee already leads the Penguins with 17 blocked shots. He's not going to make a lot of highlight reels this season, but he's going to do the dirty work in the defensive zone.

"Coming here, I wasn't nervous, I was excited," said the 32-year-old McKee. "I just wanted to get comfortable on the ice with their system and their players and getting to know the guys. That's happened in a real hurry and it's been a lot of fun."

I've always thought it must be a strange feeling for players joining a team following its Cup championship, something akin to being the fifth Beatle; you weren't there for the ultimate moment that forged an eternal bond with the rest of these guys. Still, McKee said he was quickly made welcome.

"The guys on the team have been real great making me feel part of the squad right away," he said. "Management and the coaching staff have been the same. It's a great, fresh attitude here and I feel really fortunate that I'm part of it."

Getting to see No. 87 and No. 71 up close every day? That's not so bad, either.

"It's a treat to watch them," said McKee. "There's no better guys to go against in practice, a couple of the best players in the world that make you work every day. You only get better when you practice hard and those guys practice real hard. And they have moves that you don't see all the time, it gets you thinking. It's been a lot of fun."

A little KHL
SKA St. Petersburg is off to a great start in the KHL, leading its 12-team conference with former Detroit Red Wings assistant coach Barry Smith once again behind the bench.

In an e-mail, Smith told that former NHL star Alexei Yashin has been terrific (he leads the team in scoring) and longtime Dallas Stars defenseman Sergei Zubov is also healthy from hip surgery and playing 23 minutes a game for the team.

In goal, Robert Esche has been rock solid, perhaps validating his decision to return to Russia after turning down a contract offer from the Phoenix Coyotes last June. Smith wondered if Esche's play would get him a look from the U.S. Olympic team, although that would surprise me since he wasn't invited to the orientation camp in August.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer


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