Blackhawks defenseman Jake McCabe pushing aside trade rumors while getting more involved offensively

McCabe has benefitted most from a teamwide emphasis on set plays designed to rim pucks up around the boards to defensemen. In addition to his team-leading plus-four rating, his rate of shots per game has nearly doubled since Jan. 1.

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Blackhawks defenseman Jake McCabe skates with the puck.

Blackhawks defenseman Jake McCabe’s rate of shot attempts per game has nearly doubled since Jan. 1.

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

MONTREAL — Few NHL players have wanted to sign in a specific place as much as defenseman Jake McCabe wanted to sign in Chicago in 2021.

Having grown up and gone to college in Wisconsin and having lived in River North during his offseasons with the Sabres for years, it was an obvious first choice. He was thrilled the interest proved to be mutual, allowing him to sign a four-year contract with the Blackhawks.

Less than two years into that contract, however, McCabe now finds himself entangled in trade rumors. He understands it, but that doesn’t mean he likes it.

‘‘Given the nature of where we’re at in the standings, it’s just part of it all,’’ McCabe said Monday. ‘‘[It’s] definitely not how I envisioned my tenure going here, being at the bottom of the standings, but it is what it is.’’

McCabe, 29, does wield a seven-team no-trade clause, which reportedly includes every Canadian team besides the Maple Leafs, but that’s the extent of his control over the matter.

He has drawn ‘‘steady interest’’ on the market, TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported, with the Hawks’ setting an asking price of a first-round draft pick. They could knock his salary-cap hit down to an enticing $2 million by retaining 50%.

The one silver lining for McCabe would be an opportunity to play in the playoffs, something he hasn’t experienced in seven full seasons in the NHL.

‘‘I’ve really enjoyed my time here, and my family loves it,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m going to continue to enjoy it. I can’t control anything outside of that. I’ll just take things day by day.’’

In the meantime, McCabe not only has continued playing solid defense — he leads Hawks defensemen in expected goals percentage and (by a mile) actual goals percentage as the only one close to a positive plus-minus rating — but he also has expanded the offensive side of his game.

He has benefitted the most from an increased teamwide emphasis on set plays — which coach Luke Richardson calls ‘‘automatics’’ — designed to get pucks to defensemen in space along the blue line.

‘‘When we rim pucks out [around the boards] automatically, our defensemen are supposed to be ready for that on the wall,’’ Richardson said recently. ‘‘We have our ‘D’ being active, then we have to trust our forwards at the top to make the right plays so we don’t turn pucks over. It’s starting to work. We’re getting a lot more ‘O’-zone time.’’

The entire defensive unit has improved in terms of volume and accuracy. The Hawks have gone from averaging 15.2 shots by defensemen per game in October through December to 15.8 in January and 21.3 so far in February. Friday against the Coyotes represented their best performance yet, as they had a combined 26 shots.

Likewise, the percentage of shots by defensemen getting through unblocked has risen from 67.5% in October through December to 69.9% in January and 71.9% in February.

But McCabe, in particular, has flourished more than anyone. On New Year’s Day, he was averaging 1.7 shots per game, of which 65.5% had gotten through unblocked and 50.9% had been on goal. Since then, he has averaged 3.3 shots per game, of which 86.8% have gotten through unblocked and 58.5% have been on goal.

He has added six assists in the last month, too. With 16 points in 48 games now, he’s on pace to exceed the career high of 22 points he set last season.

‘‘Most teams shrink in the ‘D’-zone pretty tight in this league, so to get it away from their guys [down low] and into some space so we can handle the puck [is helpful],’’ McCabe said. ‘‘Whether we get a shot or just [find] a release point to get it back down to [our forwards], it’s a good automatic play.’’

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