Shortly after last season ended, Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff pulled Jay McKee aside and told him what was expected going into this year. Fighting was never addressed.
Coaches don't often order their players to scrap, but it's one of the unspoken requests in hockey. Many times over the years, Rob Ray received a tap on the shoulder and wink from the man standing behind the bench. The message was clear: Drop your gloves.
In his between-seasons lecture, Ruff gave McKee the proverbial tap on the shoulder and wink. The Sabres will soon find out whether the 21-year-old defenseman blinks.
"He does want me to fight now," McKee said. "He won't come out and say that. It's not a coach's duty to come out and say, 'I want you to go fight.' . . . I'm more of a finesse player than a fighter, but we need that in our defensive lineup."
Consider, the Sabres lost their toughest defenseman when Bob Boughner went to Nashville in the expansion draft. With Boughner went 390 penalty minutes over the last two years and the team's best bodyguard for all-world goalie Dominik Hasek.
Boughner and Jason Woolley combined for 14 fighting penalties last season. Boughner had 13. The other regular defensemen -- Alexei Zhitnik, Darryl Shannon, Richard Smehlik, Mike Wilson and McKee -- combined for zero.
The Sabres did nothing in the offseason to recoup the loss of Boughner, leaving the 6-foot-3, 205-pound McKee with an opportunity and his role spelled out by Ruff: T-O-U-G-H-E-N U-P.
"He wants to me to get physical and get in guys faces at all times," McKee said. "When I don't do that, he's definitely going to be on me. It's what a younger player needs. I admit I need the coaches down my back. It will make me play better."
That's good news for the Sabres, really, because Ruff might take up residency on McKee's back. At least it's a bigger area. McKee bulked up the upper body and added about 10 pounds since last season.
Ruff has said all along that aggressiveness isn't limited to fighting. The Sabres want to establish toughness along their blue line, and McKee is expected to throw his weight around more often than in his first two years.
"There's not going to be a day off for Jay," Ruff said. "I'm going to be up one side of him and down the other. If he wants to be a player on this team, then he's going to hear it. He's going to hear about the good, and he's going to hear about the bad."
Two years ago, McKee delivered a memorable hit when he flattened Eric Lindros in the playoffs. But therein lies a problem: Nobody seems to remember a similar check since.
Last season, he became complacent and found himself with a four-week demotion to Rochester. He also was a healthy scratch for all but one playoff game as the team reached the Eastern Conference finals.
"Mike Wilson fought Lindros in the playoffs (last year), but Mike Wilson doesn't have that in him," Ray said. "A guy like Jay can do that. He's ready. He's sick of sitting, and he wants to be a part of it. He realizes what he has to do."
"There's a job here for that kind of role," winger Matthew Barnaby said. "We gotta have it. We've seen people taking advantage of us already. We need a defenseman that's going to lay the lumber and stand up for Dom."
Over the summer, McKee committed himself to strength coach Doug McKenney's program and entered training camp with a new attitude. So far, Ruff has seen mixed results.
McKee, who has been paired mostly with Shannon, has picked up his intensity in practice and games. But he still goes into defensive funks common among young players. More playing time could solve that problem.
"We need a consistent, physical effort," Ruff said. "The game the other night (a 3-0 loss to Ottawa in which the Sabres were outshot, 42-19) in Kitchener, he was beat down low two or three times by players half his size. That's the part of the game that really bothered me."
McKee is in the last year of a contract that pays him $450,000 this season. A good year would give him much more leverage for negotiations when he becomes a restricted free agent after this season. He doesn't even want to think about a bad year.
"They're giving it to me on a silver platter," he said. "They're saying, 'Here's your chance.' They're going to give me all the opportunities in the world. It's up to me to take charge. If things don't go well for me this year, there's no one else to blame but myself."
The Sabres planned to have most of their top players in the lineup tonight against the Maple Leafs in Toronto for no other reason than they need a win.
Buffalo is winless in its last 13 exhibition games and has never won in the preseason since Lindy Ruff has been coach. Ruff said the lineup would include goalie Dominik Hasek for a full game.
"There's no excuses lineup-wise," Ruff said. "We'll have a good majority of veterans in the lineup, probably only four or five players that didn't play last year. We're going to start playing for real now."
Buffalo has not won an NHL exhibition game since Sept. 27. 1996, when it beat Washington. The Sabres did beat Klagenfurt, a club team, during their trip to Austria.
"One thing I don't want to see is complacency, and I've seen it a little bit so far," Ruff said. "It might have started with a nice trip to Austria . . . but nice is over now."
Among the 20 players assigned to Rochester was Cory Sarich, a defenseman taken in the second round of the 1996 draft.
The Sabres were hoping Sarich would push for a roster spot, but he was not impressive enough during a short week of practice to get Ruff's attention. In fact, Ruff was not enamored with any of the younger players.
"You would hope some of the younger guys would spark some of the older players and show some emotion," Ruff said. "I didn't see a lot of emotion out of our younger guys. There were bits and pieces, but bits and pieces aren't good enough."
Also assigned to Rochester:
Right wing Jeremy Adduono, left wing Daniel Bienvenue, winger Matt Davidson, center Torrey DiRoberto, left wing Mark Dutiaume, center Craig Fisher, left wing Denis Hamel, center Mike Harder, defenseman Dimitri Kalinin, defenseman Shane Kenny, center Francois Methot, center Domenic Pittis, winger Dean Sylvester, defenseman Alexei Tezikov, left wing Darren Van Oene, winger Stephon Walby, center Mike Zanutto and goalies Fred Brathwaite and Scott Buhler.