As we prepare for what promises to be an eventful offseason for the Buffalo Sabres, fans have started to discuss which current members of the roster will be back for the 2019-20 season, and which will be shown the door. Amid speculation surrounding polarizing soon-to-be restricted free agents like Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson, one player who hasn’t been discussed as frequently is pending RFA, Jake McCabe.
Since his arrival as a defensive regular during the 2015-16 season, the 25-year-old has become a fan-favorite of sorts as a result of his physical play and perceived toughness on the back end. Coming off a three-year, $1.6 million AAV contract, it’s time to dive into his recent performance to try and determine what type of deal he might command this summer, and how he fits into the team’s plans moving forward.
2018-19 Performance and Usage
While McCabe continued to exhibit certain flaws in his overall game, this past season was certainly an improvement from his 2017-18 campaign, which was marred by a reported nagging shoulder injury. Following a year where he was a below-average impact player, his defensive proficiency was on display once more, something that fans expected (to an extent) once he made a full recovery.
2017-18 RAPM Chart:
2018-19 RAPM Chart:
Part of what makes his improved xG and Corsi impact (on defense) notable is his significantly altered usage and deployment. In 2017-18, he held an offensive-zone start-rate of 50.79. This past season, that rate dropped substantially, down to 41.0.
There are two ways to analyze this type of usage. Some feel that, because he is a measurably proficient defenseman in his own end, an increased defensive zone deployment is a better use of his skill set. On paper, this logic makes some sense, but it’s important to consider a player’s ability to effectively exit the zone, (something that McCabe does not do particularly well), and how that factors into optimal zone deployment.
While he was effective at breaking up opposing entries, his ability to orchestrate meaningful exits was relatively poor, as evidenced by the above graph.
One more thing to consider here is which defensive partner he spent the most time alongside, and whether that player has a complimentary skill set. In this case, McCabe spent most of his time (482:54 to be exact) with Rasmus Ristolainen, another defender with sub-optimal metrics when it comes to exiting the defensive zone.
As a duo, they held a Corsi-for percentage of 48.03. From an analytics standpoint, both players fared better without one another. That’s not to say that his transitional deficiencies were Ristolainen’s fault. McCabe continued to struggle as a puck-mover, and from a Corsi perspective (Corsi-for of 44.40 as a unit), when paired with Rasmus Dahlin.
Dahlin was far and away the best Sabres defender last year at both exiting the zone, and thwarting zone-entries. It’s difficult to draw a hard conclusion here since the two spent only 125:03 as a pairing, but having a partner with an undeniably complimentary skill set, you’d have hoped for better, in that respect, from McCabe.
Shortcomings as a puck-mover aside, there is no denying that he displayed a level of defensive responsibility that many of his blue-and-gold contemporaries lacked last season. That’s the type of thing that doesn’t show up in his base statistics but is still quite valuable in and of itself. As shown in the heat maps below, defensively, Buffalo was much more effective at thwarting high-quality chances with him on the ice.
Obviously, he represents a net positive in that regard. The question now becomes, what type of deal would an RFA of his caliber reasonably demand come July 1?
Contract Comparables and Short-Term Outlook
As was the case last summer, the Sabres are expected to go through another roster overhaul of sorts this offseason. While McCabe is certainly more likely to return than his RFA counterparts in Girgensons and Larsson, there is a possibility (albeit small) that his rights could be used as a potential trade chip.
We’ll get to that in a moment, but first, let’s take a look at a few comparable contracts to help gauge what type of cap hit and term he’ll require, if the Sabres do indeed bring him back.
The first player that jumps out as a potential comparable is Boston Bruins defenseman, Matt Grzelcyk. A fellow 2012 draft pick (selected 41 slots after McCabe), Grzelcyk has a comparable base stat line, as well as generally similar strengths as a defensive defenseman.
Last June, the Bruins extended the then 24-year-old to a two-year, $1.4 million contract. It’s worth noting that this figure is already $200,000 less AAV than McCabe is currently making. He certainly won’t be making less money on his next contract, but Grzelcyk’s figures do help illustrate why McCabe’s raise should and will likely be modest.
Another solid comparison is the deal that New York Islander’s defenseman, Scott Mayfield signed mid-way through the 2017-18 season. Mayfield represents another defensively competent blueliner (though Barry Trotz’s system certainly helped him excel in that area) and as you’ll see from the chart below, he’s an analytically similar player as well.
The Islanders went a little crazy on the term side of things when they inked the 6-foot-4 St. Louis native to a five-year, 1.45 AAV deal. If you take his overall contract total of $7.25 million and divide it over a 2-3 year deal (which would likely be the term placed on McCabe’s next contract), that would put him in the $2.4-2.8 million AAV range.
McCabe probably falls somewhere in the middle of these aforementioned deals. If that’s the case, it’s reasonable to anticipate his figure landing a shade above $2 million. That’s a pretty excellent value for someone who projects to be a third-pairing defenseman (capable of moving up the lineup, if need be) within the next year or so. With Dahlin manning the top spot on the left side and Lawrence Pilut well on his way to locking down a second-pairing role, $2 million AAV (give or take) is a more-than-palatable investment for Buffalo.
For next season, McCabe could (and likely will) pencil into a top-four role, especially if new head coach, Ralph Krueger wants to optimize his skill set by placing him with a complimentary player like Brandon Montour. This would also allow the organization to ease Pilut back from offseason surgery and take the next baby step in his development.
Let’s say, for arguments sake, that Jason Botterill is willing to move on from the former second-round pick. He could be a particularly attractive trade acquisition for a cash-strapped team in need of an inexpensive defensive reinforcement (like the Tampa Bay Lightning, for instance).
The only reason to bring up a potential trade is due to the fact that he’s one of the few movable assets that the Sabres have that could reasonably bring back something of value. If the roster is indeed in for another purge, a good portion of that movement will probably come via trade and, as the old saying goes, you have to give in order to get.
The question would then become whether or not Botterill would trade his rights, or wait a year in the hopes that he could improve (and stay healthy) alongside someone like Montour, subsequently increasing his value. Surely a player under contract would garner a larger return than a pending RFA, but it all depends on how confident the organization is that he will retain his value beyond next season.
Injuries play a role here as well (in more ways than one). McCabe not only missed a month in the middle of the year, but also finished last season in the press box with a serious upper-body injury. For the second time in two years, physical ailments caused him to miss more than 20 games. Obviously, this could deter a buyer from actively pursuing him.
There’s also the issue of the offseason medical procedures that which will reportedly keep Pilut and Zach Bogosian sidelined for the beginning of the 2019-20 season. Short-term absences aren’t likely to change Botterill’s mindset heading into the offseason, and he could always add an inexpensive, defensively sound depth piece like LHD Brad Hunt to help fill the void. Still, even with McCabe back in the fold, the Sabres don’t have any viable options after him on the left side of the blue line. Creating another hole on a roster that already has so many seems ill-advised.
It’s also important to note how much the team appeared to miss him during the 23 games that he was sidelined last season. Unless Botterill wants to rely on Matt Hunwick or Marco Scandella to man the left side of the third pairing (shudders), or if he believes that he can fill the gap in free agency, keeping McCabe on a two-year deal is the smart move. Still, his pending RFA status, shortcomings as a transition player, and injury concerns could make him a bit more of a wild card this summer than we may have anticipated, especially if his rights can be used as part of a larger deal.