Free agent David McKee knew he would be starting over this season, but he certainly couldn’t have expected his year to include both struggles at the lower rungs, and trips to the top of the hockey ladder.
McKee was a Hobey Baker top-three finalist and Ivy League Player of the Year at Cornell University in 2005 when he posted a stunning .947 save percentage and 1.24 GAA. He forwent his senior year to sign with the Anaheim Ducks this spring.
Like many rookie goalies, he’s cutting his teeth in the ECHL. But thanks to injuries on the parent club, the 23-year-old has been snatched upwards twice out of affiliate Augusta Lynx. He was recalled to Anaheim on Nov. 21 and again on Dec. 28 due to injuries to both J.S. Giguere and Ilja Bryzgalov. McKee dressed as the backup for five games, at one point behind fellow prospect Michael Wall, who spent last year in Augusta.
The reflex goalie, who talks as fast as he moves, recently described his year as kind of a roller coaster, one in which he hasn’t been able to settle in anywhere yet. Moving from a college schedule to a pro schedule with almost double the number of games, McKee got off to an inconsistent start in Augusta, but has been playing better lately.
“My first few games I felt like it was a lot of games in a row, definitely different from college,” he said. “It took a little while to adjust. Now I feel a lot more comfortable – it’s halfway through the year so I better feel comfortable.”
A native of Irving, Texas who played a year in the NAHL before Cornell, McKee has unpolished natural talent.
The Ducks have someone to help him with that. Anaheim’s well-known goaltending coach Francois Allaire is coaching McKee to adjust his style, and it’s a significant change.
“I’d say I’m 99 percent reflex and he likes more of a blocking method. More of a Giguere method of stopping the puck where you’re always in the middle of the net,” McKee said. “I’ve never really worked on anything like that before, so it was definitely a struggle at the beginning, but it’s coming along. I definitely have a lot to work on.”
After 12 years of doing things a certain way, habits have formed that are hard to break. McKee recognizes that his style, in a sea of butterflyers, is abnormal.
“I guess I’m more of a hybrid cross of a reflex and stand-up, which is weird,” he noted.
He and Allaire are focusing on “Making my movements around the net a lot simpler, like one push, stop with one foot quick. I never really had a lot of direction when I was growing up, being from Texas, so I just kind of picked up things from different goalies and made it my own style. It’s weird having direction now,” he said.
Simple movements are not how one would describe McKee’s tendencies at this point. He expends more energy than most goaltenders, and can be a little scrambly at times. But, as good scouts will tell you, it’s making the stops and winning that’s most important. And the 6’1, 190-pounder has a good track record there. He wasn’t completely without coaching as a youngster though.
“I started playing when I was 11, so right after I started playing I tried to go to Andy Moog’s camps,” McKee recalled. “He was the (Dallas) Stars’ goalie and I idolized him growing up. In the summer, a week here, a week there, I tried to pick up stuff from him.”
Given the changes he’s experiencing in playing conditions and style, it’s no wonder that McKee’s individual statistics aren’t as stellar as they were with Cornell. He currently holds a middle of the pack .894 save percentage and 3.61 GAA, but a very solid 13-8 record on what is a .500 team. But since returning from Anaheim the second time, he’s been very good, giving up just two goals a game in his last three starts.
The heavier professional workload has definitely affected him, but he’s not only made peace with it, he’s happy about it.
“I actually enjoy it, it’s nice. At Cornell, we were always known for having a really good defense. It’s been fun getting more than 20 shots a game,” he said laughing. “I think it’s really helped my development a lot.”
Goaltenders know that shot totals are just one of many things out of their control. Another is travel. And McKee had quite an adventure getting to Anaheim the first time.
“It was kind of crazy,” he recalled. “I was in a movie actually and I got a call from (Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations) Bob Murray saying ‘Hey, we need you to come here right now, we’ve got a flight in two hours for you.’ I ran home, got my stuff. I flew from was from Augusta to Charlotte, Charlotte to Vegas. Got to Vegas around midnight and they had overbooked the flight by eight people. So I had to sleep on the floor of the airport and then leave in the morning at 7:00. Got there at 9:00, practice was at 10:00. Kind of crazy.
“Back was much smoother than going!” he said laughing. “No problems coming back.”
When he was called up the second time for a game in Raleigh, it was even easier since Augusta, Georgia is only two states away.
“It was just a four-hour drive from here to Carolina. They had someone pick me up,” he said. “It was nice, a lot easier than flying.”
While he never got into a game with Anaheim, he used his time on the bench to make mental notes that he tries to keep in mind in Augusta.
“The biggest thing is communication,” he said. “Guys talk so much more up there. I think that’s a huge part of why they’re more successful – they know where everyone is all the time. Another thing is being sharp. You might only get 18 shots a game up there, or you could get 40, you just never know. You always have to be mentally ready.”
With all the issues the Ducks have had in net this year, including losing Michael Leighton on waivers, lack of a consistent partner in net has been another variable for McKee. To start the season, the Lynx had Brett Jaeger, an ECHL veteran, but poor play was his undoing. Nathan Marsters, also under Anaheim contract, is McKee’s current partner, and Mike Brodeur (CHI) has also suited up for the team.
It’s a common tenet that it’s better for a goaltender’s development to be a starter in the ECHL than a backup in the AHL. So a return to Augusta is good for McKee, where he’s getting a lot of work. The Lynx, and just about every other team in hockey, play a more wide-open style than Cornell, so he sees a lot of shots from straight on.
“At Cornell I’d get two, three, four quality scoring chances a game. Here I get about 20 a game. It’s been a huge jump and I think early on I was a little … unprepared for it,” he said, searching for the right word. “But now I know it’s coming and I just get myself ready for it. I think my mental preparation before games is a lot better than it was.”
Mental preparation is just one area he’s grown in as a goaltender since making the anguished decision to leave school a year early.
“My best friends are at school and it was a very difficult decision,” he recalled. “I loved Cornell and I loved playing there. We had the best fans in college hockey so it was a tough place to leave. But I thought I was leaving for a great opportunity and something that would be successful for me.”
With the Lynx hovering only at the break-even point and not putting up the personal numbers goaltenders hope for, McKee’s had his struggles, but said, “I’m still happy with my decision and I’m glad I did it, but [leaving] definitely was tough.”
Of course, it’s nice to be wanted so much by both your college team and NHL teams that such a decision even comes to pass. McKee definitely was in the driver’s seat where his future was concerned. In fact, the question is not why he left school early, but why he didn’t leave a year earlier after such a successful sophomore season. McKee explained that he felt he and the team had unfinished business from the 2004-05 season.
“We lost in overtime to Minnesota, at Minnesota, 2-1. I really wanted to get to the Frozen Four, that was my main goal the entire year. It wasn’t all the individual stuff. I was playing for my teammates, my best friends were there, some really good guys. I decided I wanted to stay another year because we had a good team coming back and I thought we could get there.
“We ended up losing to Wisconsin, in Wisconsin, in overtime, again,” he recalled with emotion. “It was a good season. It was bittersweet, but I just wanted to get to the Frozen Four, that was my main purpose.”
Nearing a year later, it must still be hard to bear how close the 2005-06 Big Red came to reaching that goal. McKee made a career-high 59 saves in a triple-overtime 1-0 loss to Wisconsin in the NCAA Midwest Regional Final. Wisconsin went on to win the NCAA title. The fact that Cornell lost to the eventual champions is cold comfort.
“That always makes you feel a little better, but still not what you wanted to see,” McKee said.
Very shortly afterwards, McKee signed with Anaheim, one of many NHL teams who made offers.
“I talked to about 10 teams,” he said. “Anaheim pursued me the most. I talked to them the most frequently. The opportunity was there and everything I asked for was there. It just seemed like the right fit.”
Anaheim’s eyes may have been drawn to McKee during his magical sophomore season due to one of their current prospects also playing for Cornell, forward Shane Hynes. Hynes and McKee played together at the school in 2003-04 and 2004-05. Hynes is now playing with Augusta as well and the second-year pro was named to the upcoming ECHL All-Star game, but is injured.
Having left Cornell prior to his senior season on pace with his graduating class, McKee has one full year of credits left to finish his degree. And he plans on doing just that.
“I’m trying to, yeah. In the summer I’m going to try the correspondence stuff. I didn’t want to do anything my first year in pro hockey just because it takes a lot to get used to just playing. Eventually I will.”
It’s been a quick rise for the goaltender through junior hockey, Division I NCAA hockey, to the NHL. He was not selected in the NHL Entry Draft after his freshman year, as many college players are, but not only did that not bother him, he barely noticed. McKee admits to being very naïve about the business of hockey just a few short years ago.
“To be totally honest with you,” he said, “leaving juniors going to college, I actually planned on quitting hockey and going to college and never thinking about the sport again. Then the opportunity presented itself to go to Cornell and I jumped on it. I never even heard of the Hobey or being drafted — I didn’t understand what any of that was until I got to school. So [not being drafted] didn’t bother me at all. I was just there to play and have a good time.”
With Bryzgalov now healthy and Anaheim adding goaltender Sebastien Caron to the system via trade, chances are that McKee is in Augusta for the duration of the season.
That’s convenient, since he has a new paint job for his mask on the way — they’ll know what address to send it to.
McKee has had a new custom-fitted mask provided by Anaheim all year, but hasn’t put a paint job on the white shell yet. Now that he’s gotten an NHL paycheck or two, he’s got a paint job on order. He decided against doing team colors because he’s been bouncing around so much. Instead, he’ll be decked out in a Grim Reaper motif, done in black, white and chrome. It should be done in the next couple of weeks.
Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.