Jake McCabe’s Blackhawks tenure didn’t begin as planned.
Signed to a four-year contract during the summer to be the shutdown defenseman the Hawks have long coveted, he was one of the players who underwhelmed the most during the Hawks’ 1-9-2 start.
During his even-strength ice time in those 12 games, the Hawks conceded 15 goals — an average of 4.6 per 60 minutes. They also bled scoring chances, allowing an average of 33.4 per 60 minutes with him on the ice.
Even when you disregard the stats, he was invisible at best and a liability at worst during the opening month, frequently losing his man in defensive-zone coverage or losing inside position around the net.
But as the season has progressed, McCabe has found his footing.
“The first dozen games probably weren’t my best,” he said. “I started moving my feet a little better. I started getting a little bit more comfortable, a little bit more confident and started playing a little better.”
His increased comfort level has been evident; his strong innate defensive instincts have been, too. And he has looked more physically capable.
He has defended from the slot out and used his big, sturdy frame to not only accumulate hits (61 of them and counting) but also make an impact with them, using them to separate opposing forwards from the puck.
In his previous 16 games entering Sunday, the Hawks had conceded only 2.3 goals and 28.9 scoring chances per 60 minutes of McCabe’s even-strength ice time.
“The big thing is that he’s moving his feet, he’s skating,” interim coach Derek King said shortly before the holiday break. “He’s not standing still, waiting for things to happen — he’s making things happen. He’s a big part of our ‘D’ back there, and when he’s playing like that, it makes our game a lot easier.”
McCabe watches all of his shifts after each game to learn from his mistakes. He also has intensified his work with skills coach Brian Keane this season.
He acknowledged his “last few games” before the holiday break represented a step back for him. Indeed, he allowed 27 scoring chances and four goals between Dec. 15 and 17 against the Capitals and Predators.
But he played well — despite the ugly result — Saturday against the Predators, allowing only four scoring chances, then was reunited with his most frequent partner this season, Connor Murphy, on Sunday against the Flames. McCabe trails only Murphy on the Hawks’ hits and blocked-shots leaderboards.
“[I want to] be the player that’s expected of me: be harder to play against, be physical, a good puck-mover, keep the puck out of our net and contribute on the penalty kill the best I can,” he said. “Those are the main points of my game, and I need to continue to bring that every night and continue to work on improving that.”
The Hawks activated Marc-Andre Fleury from COVID-19 protocol, surely prompting some sighs of relief after Saturday’s goaltending disaster. Collin Delia, meanwhile, was sent down to the AHL.
King opted to give Arvid Soderblom his first career start Sunday because Fleury — who operated as the backup — still hadn’t skated in a while. But Fleury should be good to go Tuesday against the Avalanche.