Giving the Jay McClement's of the NHL Their Proper Due
Does a similar thing occur when it comes to the NHL and the Selke Trophy, which is awarded to the best defensive forward in the NHL? If you look back over the history of the award, winners average 61.5 points during the season they win, which is a rather high number. That's not to suggest it's the only reason they won (because, let's face it, players like Pavel Datsyuk, Rod Brind'Amour, etc. etc. were more than deserving of their honors); it's just to point out that a player that shows up on the box score and in highlight reels is a lot more likely to be noticed than a fundamentally sound shutdown forward that quietly goes about his business keeping the other team off of the scoreboard.
A player like Datsyuk is clearly an elite defensive player but also manages to score 90 points nearly every season because 1) He's that good, and 2) He's used that often and in a variety of different roles. But it works in different ways. Some players excel so much defensively, and are so valuable in their "shutdown" role, that they're counted on almost entirely for their defensive abilities and are asked to spend significantly more time on the penalty kill or start more shifts in the defensive zone, a situation that not only leads to more shots against, but also more goals against (which is why teams want strong defensive players starting shifts closest to their goalie).
Let's take Jay McClement of the St. Louis Blues as an example.
The 27-year-old forward has played five seasons in the NHL, and over the past four has been a rock as far as durability is concerned, missing just two games during that time period. Even so, he's never scored more than 12 goals in a single season and only once eclipsed the 30-point plateau. But that's not what's expected of him. Defense is his game.
This past season he finished 16th in the Selke Trophy voting, receiving two first place votes, four fourth place votes and five fifth place votes. Too high? Too low? Let's examine what McClement really means to the Blues.
For one, it's remarkably clear that he is the unquestioned No. 1 option on the team when it comes to killing penalties, having logged 336 minutes of shorthanded ice-time (over 24 percent of his overall ice-time) last season, which was the fourth-highest total of any player in the NHL, and most among forwards (it's worth mentioning that only five of the top-30 players in this category were forwards). This is important because the Blues were not only a very good penalty killing team, they were the absolute best in the NHL finishing the season with an 86.8 percent success rate (they've been in the top-seven in each of the past three seasons).
When it comes to 5-on-5 play, McClement only started 41.9 percent of his even strength shifts in the offensive zone -- via Behind The Net -- which was the lowest total on the team, and is another example of just how much confidence the Blues have in his abilities as a defensive player.
I asked the folks at the Blues blog St. Louis Game Time for some additional insights on the man they refer to as "Silent Jay," and here's what their Joe Barker told me via e-mail.
"The nickname fits so well, because Jay is just so quiet in his game. He does nothing flashy on the ice at all. He's not a big hitter (only 66 last season), he doesn't block shots (only 52) and he doesn't really score. He does take a ton of faceoffs and is often the guy the Blues call on to win a draw," said Barker. "What McClement does well, is playing defense. He has great positioning and reads the puck well."
He continued: "One of the reasons Andy Murray got the boot was because he loved McClement too much. Like I said, Jay is not a goal scorer, but he was getting a ton of ice time under Murray. Murray deemed him, and his line of Alex Steen and B.J. Crombeen, the stopper line. He played them constantly. At home, when the Blues had the last change, Murray matched the stopper line at every chance. There were home games were the No. 1 line guys -- Andy McDonald and such -- were playing fewer minutes a night because Murray was running Jay over the boards to stop the oppositions' best line. Basically, McClement is a steady hand who is the furthest thing from flashy. He shows up, takes a ton of faceoffs, and smothers other forwards. When he's on, you rarely hear his name on the broadcast -- you also rarely hear the other team's top player mentioned."
The Phoenix Coyotes have a similar player in Vernon Fiddler, who also doesn't score a lot or do much to get noticed, but is generally rock-solid when it comes to being a penalty killer and a defensive specialist up front. He finished 14th in last year's Selke Trophy voting.
Like McClement, Fiddler spent more than 20 percent of his ice-time in shorthanded situations, and started only 41 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone (lowest percentage on the team among forwards). As a team, the Coyotes have quite a few forwards more than capable of playing in their own end of the ice (like Martin Hanzal, for example), which is important given how much they rely on their defensemen to jump into the play and create offense.
Some other players worthy of a mention: Daniel Winnik (Colorado Avalanche), B.J. Crombeen (St. Louis Blues), Blair Betts (Philadelphia Flyers), Travis Moen (Montreal Canadiens), Samuel Pahlsson (Columbus Blue Jackets).