To summarize the Toronto Maple Leafs season one can look no further than the lyrics of Toronto born rap sensation Drake.
“Started from the Bottom Now We Here.”
The Toronto Maple Leafs were virtually written off at the start of the 2013 season. Few were expecting a winning season, and quite frankly, most were pegging the team to be bottom feeders once again.
Yet, they have scratched and clawed their way to fifth in the East and seem poised to secure their first playoff appearance in nine years.
With a new head coach at the helm in Randy Carlyle, the Leafs finally have an identity, and the team’s makeup has gone a long way in solidifying its successful season.
While the team has enjoyed the breakout season of forward Nazem Kadri, the resurgence of goaltender James Reimer and a healthy forward, James Van Riemsdyk, lost in the mix are its special teams.
The Leafs power play improved from 24th in the league last season to 15th this year.
But perhaps the biggest difference from last season’s collapse has been the Leafs penalty kill. Last season, Toronto had the league’s third-worst PK. This year, however, it’s the league’s third best.
For a team that has the most fighting majors and the second-most penalty minutes in the NHL, the emphasis on playing shorthanded is as important as ever.
The one player who got the memo and has been its greatest shorthanded contributor is Jay McClement.
“He’s a trustworthy individual. When you put him on the ice, you know what you’re going to get,” Randy Carlyle said. “He’ll block shots. He’s strong along the wall...So he makes himself useful in a bunch of different ways. And that’s always a comfort zone for a coach.”
Caryle's trust in McClement has resulted in the forward leading all NHL’ers in shorthanded ice time. He has been a workhorse presence on one of the league’s most reliable special teams.
Remarkably, in each of the last five years, the Leafs penalty kill has ranked no better than 28th in the NHL. It’s clear McClement’s arrival has had a direct effect on their success.
Improving his team’s penalty kill isn’t something new for McClement.
McClement was also the centerpiece of an Avs PK unit that improved from 30th in 2010-2011 to 12th the following season.
Since joining the NHL, the Kingston, ON native has been the model of consistency. Prior to this year’s shortened season, he has played in 80 or more games every year except for his rookie season.
Despite his role, McClement didn’t grow up dreaming of being a shutdown, penalty-kill specialist.
In fact, he was talented enough to be selected second overall in the 1999 Ontario Hockey League draft, right behind a goal-scoring prodigy named Jason Spezza.
But in the OHL, Brampton Battalion coach Stan Butler had McClement filling a niche. This move allowed McClement to represent Canada in a couple of world junior championships.
McClement later became a second-round pick in the 2001 NHL draft.
Obviously, McClement is not the only reason, but he is a huge factor in Toronto's improvement—much more so than anyone could have predicted. McClement is a versatile player, as he can play up and down the lineup and also take important faceoffs.
Despite it being his first year with the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s no coincidence he wears an A on his jersey. McClement is the type of veteran and leader a young team like Toronto needs.
When names like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter topped the free-agent market last summer, McClement wasn’t exactly the headlining acquisition fans had hoped for.
Make no mistake though, general manager Brian Burke got this one right. The signing of McClement has arguably turned out to be one of the best Leafs pickups in recent memory.