Luke DeCock

DeCock: Unheralded McClement fills need for Hurricanes

The Canes Jay McClement (18), Ron Hainsey (65) and Jeff Skinner (53) defend against the Buffalo Sabres' Marcus Foligno (82), Zac Dalpe (20) and Nikita Zadorov (51) during the first period of a preseason NHL game  PNC Arena in Raleigh.
The Canes Jay McClement (18), Ron Hainsey (65) and Jeff Skinner (53) defend against the Buffalo Sabres' Marcus Foligno (82), Zac Dalpe (20) and Nikita Zadorov (51) during the first period of a preseason NHL game PNC Arena in Raleigh. cseward@newsobserver.com

Jay McClement had played enough games against the Carolina Hurricanes as a penalty-killing, face-off winning defensive center with the Toronto Maple Leafs over the past few seasons to form a pretty good opinion of the team, long before he signed as a free agent this summer.

“The first thing that comes to mind on most teams is the top players, and they had the Staals and those type of guys, and (Alexander) Semin, the top-end talent to score goals,” McClement said. “I also knew what I could bring to the team would be a good fit.”

What McClement could bring was a consistent fourth-line defensive presence, a gamer. His role will be bigger than that, thanks to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, but he showed his value in Friday’s 5-1 preseason win against the Buffalo Sabres, making the defensive play that set up the opening goal the Hurricanes’ overall play deserved.

McClement wins faceoffs – he was among the top 25 in the NHL last year – and he carried a heavy defensive load for the Maple Leafs last season, starting more of his shifts than any Toronto player in his own end. He’s not going to score many goals, but that’s not expected of him, either.

Still, like many Hurricanes players, the expectations for McClement changed when Jordan Staal broke a leg in the Canes’ second preseason game. Instead of centering a fourth line that was supposed to bring hustle and energy, he’ll not only take on the responsibility of playing against the opposition’s best line but serve as new coach Bill Peters’ daily example of how he wants his team to play – regardless of skill, talent or salary.

“All I know is I’m looking for somebody who can play with Jay McClement, on either side, be a responsible player, and play against the best players in the league,” Peters said. “Whether that’s a third-line checking line, or if I miss on a matchup they’re my security blanket, I don’t know that yet. We need a responsible line that’s basically our template on how to play. They do it right each and every night. ‘JMac’ and two others.”

Friday, Nathan Gerbe and Chad LaRose auditioned in that role – briefly, at least, before LaRose was tossed early for knocking Josh Gorges into the end boards. Patrick Dwyer will surely get a look when he returns from injury. Zach Boychuk, Brad Malone, Chris Terry and Patrick Brown are all still around.

In what was in many ways a dress rehearsal for next Friday’s season-opener, Elias Lindholm had a hat trick (the third an empty-netter), Cam Ward played very well, Victor Rask didn’t look out of place with Jeff Skinner and Lindholm and the Hurricanes even scored a power-play goal.

But it was McClement who turned the tide early, defusing a Buffalo possession by collecting the puck behind the Carolina net and flipping a puck up the boards to set Semin – bestowed with the ‘A’ of an alternate captain – loose on an odd-man rush neatly finished by Gerbe for the game’s first goal.

“That’s exactly how it works,” a satisfied Peters said afterward.

LaRose’s game misconduct meant McClement played with several other linemates the rest of the night, giving Peters plenty of opportunities to see him with different players. Who that ends up being is anyone’s guess. The one certainty will be McClement in the middle, night after night.

“That stuff wins,” Gerbe said. “You need those types of guys to move forward. Whoever plays with him, that’s their responsibility and you need to get the job done.”

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