After starring with the OHL's Oshawa Generals for three seasons, Kirk McLean was drafted by the New Jersey Devils in 1984. Over the next two seasons, 1985-86 and '86-87, he appeared in just six games for the Devils, a situation created by an overabundance of strong netminding. At the time, New Jersey had Craig Billington, Alain Chevrier, Bob Sauve, Sean Burke, and Chris
Terreri in their system, all competing for the two goaltending spots available.
With a wealth of talent, McLean was a very tradeable asset. He was packaged in September 1987 with Greg Adams and a draft choice to Vancouver for Patrick Sundstrom and two draft choices. On Canada's West Coast, McLean was fully able to reach his potential. Teaming with Richard Brodeur the first year, the Canucks had a solid tandem, but McLean usurped the veteran and won the number-one spot, where he stayed for eleven years.
During that time, McLean was named to the NHL's Second All-Star Team in 1992, a season where he led the NHL in wins with 38, and shutouts, with five. In 1993-94, he led the Canucks to the Stanley Cup finals, but Vancouver was beaten by the New York Rangers in a memorable seven-game series.
During 1997-98, McLean was traded not once, but twice. He began the season in Vancouver, but moved to Carolina as part of a deal with Martin Gelinas for Sean Burke, Geoff Sanderson, and Enrico Ciccone. Then, after just eight games, he was sent to Florida where the Panthers traded Ray Sheppard to get him. McLean played one full season with the Panthers in 1998-99 before signing as a free agent with the New York Rangers for the 1999-00 season. McLean went on to play two seasons with the Rangers before ending his playing career after the 2001-02 season.
In 2002-03 McLean was hired as the goaltending coach for the WHL Kamloops Blazers.