Jake McCabe looks like shutdown defenseman Blackhawks have long needed
After singlehandedly keeping the Sabres afloat defensively for years, McCabe now heads the Blackhawks’ defensive rescue squad.
Jake McCabe knows his style — a defensive defenseman to the bone — will never sell tickets on its own. But he also knows how important it is to team success.
“You play for your buddy next to you,” he said. “Frankly, that’s all I care about. I don’t really outsource my confidence.”
Perhaps no team will find it more important than will the Blackhawks, who haven’t had someone quite like McCabe in a long time.
Brent Seabrook lost that ability years before he retired. Connor Murphy’s increasingly massive role prevented him from specializing in it. Nikita Zadorov’s tsunami of turnovers undermined his defensive acumen.
So among general manager Stan Bowman’s many summer moves, signing McCabe to a four-year contract on the first day of free agency may have quietly been the wisest of all.
“For me, it’s pretty simple,” said McCabe, 27. “I compete every single night, every single shift, [to] do my job the best I can. And that [job is] blocking shots, being hard to play against, making the other top lines’ nights pretty tough.
“My skating ability on line rushes and making stops in the ‘D’ zone are my strengths . . . [To] get that puck stopped and get it up to the forwards and get it transitioned the other way is kind of my M.O.”
In training camp, coach Jeremy Colliton has been particularly impressed not only by McCabe’s physicality and size (6-1, 204 pounds) but also by his patience.
“Patience without the puck is important, too,” Colliton said. “[You] just calm down, don’t run around, hold your position, and he’s definitely got that. When you have a guy like that on the ice, it helps all four other guys make their reads.”
Digging into McCabe’s numbers during his Sabres tenure paints an impressive picture: In the toughest of situations on the worst of teams, McCabe managed to consistently limit opposing teams’ offense.
A good way to measure that is through expected goals (xG), a statistic that determines an expected value for every shot attempt to account for quality, not just quantity.
Over McCabe’s last three seasons in Buffalo, his overall even-strength xG ratio of 51.4% ranked first on the team — a team on which 29 of 32 regulars were below 50%. His xG-against rate ranked fourth. And he was the team’s best defenseman in shorthanded xG-against rate, too, per Natural Stat Trick.
McCabe’s direct impacts on teammates and opponents show even more vividly how much he carried the Sabres’ water.
His most common defensive partner over the last three years was Rasmus Ristolainen, the purported No. 1 defenseman whom the Sabres finally gave up on (and traded to the Flyers) this summer. During 1,162 even-strength minutes together, the McCabe-Ristolainen duo produced a very strong 53.1% xG ratio. In Ristolainen’s minutes without McCabe, however, his xG ratio dropped to an awful 41.4%.
And while McCabe was singlehandedly keeping Ristolainen afloat, he was simultaneously sinking other Eastern Conference stars — or at least faring far better against them than his teammates were.
The list of the 30 opposing forwards whom McCabe spent the most even-strength ice time with over the past three years is stacked with talent. Yet 20 of those 30 forwards posted a lower xG ratio when McCabe was defending them versus when he wasn’t.
Nine of them saw McCabe lower their xG by more than 20 percentage points, while only three experienced the opposite effect. Alex Ovechkin, for example, had a 28.0% xG ratio against McCabe versus 52.8% against all other Sabres. Patrice Bergeron: 47.6% versus 73.1%. Claude Giroux: 43.7% versus 67.8%. Mathew Barzal: 22.2% versus 50.8%.
That’s the kind of constant, stifling defensive ability the Hawks have craved during Colliton’s tenure, during which they’ve ranked 29th, 28th and most recently 31st in team xG ratio.
And so far, McCabe looks like the perfect person to head the Hawks’ defensive rescue squad.
Note: The Hawks cut their camp roster to 36 on Wednesday, with Brett Connolly — who cleared Tuesday’s waivers — and top prospect Lukas Reichel headlining a group of nine players newly assigned to the AHL.