After all the Stanley Cup championship-level success that came with the Penguins in the last two seasons, it’d be silly to dissuade any fan from trusting GM Jim Rutherford’s process on finding solid players that fit perfectly into Head Coach Mike Sullivan’s system. In that same conversation is Sullivan’s consistent and uncanny ability to groom Wilkes-Barre guys into in-game phenoms in the NHL, like we’ve seen from breakout star Jake Guentzel. He’s also found a way to fill vacated roster spots with up-and-coming players like Carter Rowney and Josh Archibald whenever injuries take their dreaded effect late in the playoffs.
But even with all that lower-level, Stanley Cup-experienced talent able to be worked with, it’s clear Rutherford is still trying to properly fill the gap in the fourth-line center position with minimal cost to the organization — something he’s infamously known for failing to do in the past with this club and others via huge salary contracts. But after signing 34-year-old Jay McClement to a professional tryout contract (PTO) last Friday — a contract many feel is a smart move on Rutherford’s part — that gap may have finally been filled with very little chance of it blowing up in his face.
Signing McClement is incredibly smart because if he shows up in camp and plays well, Rutherford is a hero for saving the fourth line. But if McClement fails and falls short, Rutherford can wipe his hands clean and keep up the search with barely any backlash.
Of course, a lot of questions are circling around the veteran’s age in regard to his productivity. With such little room for errors like this Penguins team commands, McClement is going to have to really prove himself throughout camp and preseason to solidify a spot on the final roster; that much is obvious. Sullivan has no issues with starting the better player, no matter his age, and will happily play a guy like Rowney over a veteran if he’s putting up superior numbers.
In the 906 career games stretched across his 12-years in the league, he tallied 244 points (90 goals, 154 assists) and has served as the alternate captain five different times. Luckily for Pittsburgh, McClement is also a fantastic penalty killer, and was the go-to guy when the Carolina Hurricanes were down with a man in the box. The Hurricanes have consistently been a top-6 penalty killing unit since they signed McClement, finishing fourth and sixth respectively in 2014 and 2015. In the 2016-17 season, they boasted a best 91.7 percentage rating (more than three points above the second best unit in the St. Louis Blues) with McClement leading the charge in minutes. With Pittsburgh’s frustrating struggles on the PK, a guy like him will bring a much-needed expertise to a lacking unit.
Analyzing him specifically as a center is a little different and leaves a lot to be desired. Compared to an average fourth-liner last season by using Own The Puck HERO charts, McClement is a decent set-up man, but shows scanty numbers on shot generation. This is unfortunately where we’ll experience the most pain with Matt Cullen shipping up to Hockey Town to play with the Wild. You just can’t replace that sort of grit and talent.
Speaking of which, when we compared McClement to fellow veteran Cullen...well, let’s just say it wasn’t pretty. Dad will definitely be missed in the Pens’ lineup, that’s for sure, and making up for his offensive production will be nearly impossible when shopping for cheap, bottom-six players. Picking up a veteran Stanley Cup champion that puts up up these numbers makes Minnesota a lucky team.
With all that being said, we can find solace in the fact that Rutherford makes magic happen in situations that seem to be completely undesirable, even when it seems like a strange move (ex. the James Neal trade for Patric Hornqvist). McClement might just be his next diamond in the rough decision. For now, and with preseason just a little over a month away, I think it’s fair to wait for the 34-year old to show Pittsburgh fans what he’s got.