Blackhawks sign defenseman Jake McCabe, forward Jujhar Khaira in free agency

McCabe, a 27-year-old former Sabres defenseman, signed a four-year contract with a $4 million cap hit.

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Former Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe signed with the Blackhawks on Wednesday.

Gary Wiepert/AP file photo

After five years of spending his summers in Chicago but playing his hockey in Buffalo, defenseman Jake McCabe felt chills as he walked into Fifth Third Arena on Wednesday.

Minutes later, he signed a four-year, $16 million contract with the Blackhawks. He’ll functionally take the place of Nikita Zadorov, who was finally traded as the Hawks continued their defensive overhaul on the NHL’s first day of free agency.

“It’s surreal I was able to come to work here today,” McCabe said. “Honestly, it’s just really a dream come true. I’ve been kind of secretly hoping this was going to come to fruition for a long time.”

McCabe’s wife Gaby, whom he met at the University of Wisconsin, grew up in Downers Grove. The couple now live in Lake View and had their first child in April.

McCabe — an Eau Claire, Wisconsin, native — has trained in Chicago throughout his NHL career. He has been close friends with Hawks stalwart Connor Murphy, his potential new ‘D’ partner, since age 15. The city has unequivocally become his “adopted home.”

And his new employer is not only conveniently located but also in need of his services. Through 353 games — mostly over the last six seasons — with the Sabres, McCabe (6-1, 210 pounds) established himself as a reliable left-handed defensive defensemen with the results to prove it.

He recorded 517 blocked shots and 522 hits — in addition to 77 points — during that time, and his analytics were even more impressive. From 2018 to 2021, he ranked fourth among regularly appearing Sabres in scoring chances allowed per minute (at even-strength), fourth in shot attempts allowed per minute and third in expected goals allowed per minute.

“I take pride in my defense and shutting down other teams’ top lines,” he said. “I do whatever it takes to win: block shots, be physical, be hard to play against, bring that leadership mentality in the dressing room and on the ice. That’s what I expect to bring to this team.”

The 2021 season looked on track to be perhaps his best yet until it was derailed in February after 13 games by a major knee injury.

Although the ensuing surgery was projected to entail six to eight months of recovery, McCabe said Wednesday he has already been skating for a month. He expects to be a “full participant” in September training camp.

“I’ve got zero concerns,” he said. “My rehab has gone very, very well . . . [I’m] feeling really comfortable on the ice and still have two months to go.”

McCabe joins fellow defensemen Seth Jones and Riley Stillman and forward Tyler Johnson as the only non-rookie Hawks with three or more years left under contract, even though all four played for other teams as recently as March. That reflects just how high the turnover has been this offseason.

In trading Zadorov, the Hawks received from the Flames a 2022 third-round pick, far less than the Brandon Saad-headlined price they paid to acquire him last fall but at least something of note.

Wednesday’s moves leave McCabe, Jones, Murphy and Calvin de Haan — although de Haan’s name remains in trade rumors — as the Hawks’ apparent top four defensemen right now.

The Hawks also signed depth forward Jujhar Khaira, a 26-year-old formerly of the Oilers, to a two-year contract with a $975,000 cap hit Wednesday.

Khaira had 63 points in 258 games over the last six seasons in Edmonton, including 11 in 40 games last season. A physical presence with a big body (6-4, 213 pounds), he struggles with speed but can grind on the fourth line.

Meanwhile, other forwards the Hawks ignored this week quickly found new homes elsewhere. Pius Suter signed for two years ($3.25 million cap hit) with the Red Wings, David Kampf signed for two years ($1.5 million) with the Maple Leafs and Vinnie Hinostroza signed for one year ($1.05 million) with the Sabres.

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