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Player Report Card: Jake McCabe

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Despite an up-and-down season, McCabe’s skill set fit in with Ralph Krueger’s defensive approach

Washington Capitals v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

Total Season Stats: 66 GP | 3 G | 10 A | 13 PTS

Age: 26

Contract Status: One-Year Remaining at $2.85 million

Despite his flaws as a player, it seems as though every coach who arrives in Western New York falls in love with Jake McCabe. In his first year behind the Buffalo Sabres’ bench, that trend applied to Ralph Krueger. Deployed as one of the team’s primary shutdown defensemen all season, despite several rough patches, the Wisconsin native always managed to avoid the press box (which can be said for only select a few Sabres blueliners in 2019-20).

It’s no secret that Krueger ran a more defensively responsible system than Phil Housley. As a result of serving in a more specialized role (44-percent OZS rate on the year, the lowest of any Sabres defender), his skill set was maximized to an extent. While the Buffalo coaching staff certainly failed to optimize a lot of their assets in 2019-20, McCabe was not one of them.

McCabe’s average TOI of 18:32 per-game ranked fourth among Sabres defenders. That total only represents a slight reduction from the year prior. While his base statistics remained pedestrian, the improvements he displayed from an analytics standpoint cannot be ignored.

In terms of relative Corsi and xG, his relative marks improved by 4.17-percent, and 5.08-percent, respectively. That’s a pretty big leap, especially considering the fact that his ice time, and zone-deployment ratios were essentially identical to 2018-19. The reasoning behind the gap we’re seeing can be explained in part by his primary pairing mate.

Last season, McCabe spent a vast majority of his time alongside Rasmus Ristolainen. The same was true again this season. The big difference is the statistical disparity Ristolainen exhibited away from McCabe this season versus last season.

In 2018-19, Ristolainen and McCabe had similar relative Corsi and xG marks both with, and without one another. Though they were worse off as a tandem than not, the disparity wasn’t massive. This season however, Ristolainen’s metrics plummeted away from McCabe.

A lot of that had to do with the fact that his second-most consistent partner was Brandon Montour. The Ristolainen-Montour pairing was a terrible fit, but Krueger opted to play them for over 330 minutes together, despite being the worst-performing duo, analytically (especially from a purely defensive standpoint).

Because of this, the relative data could be giving more credit to McCabe than he deserves. How much of an improvement the 26-year-old actually made under Krueger is up for debate, but it’s very difficult to argue that there wasn’t at least some improvement in his game.

From the very beginning of his NHL career, McCabe has always been an interesting case study. He’s battled injuries, and at times, been asked to do more than he was suited for, and it’s probably resulted in some of the maddening game-by-game inconsistencies we’ve seen in his play.

In the mid-200’s, he’d have been a bonafide top-four shutdown style defender. In today’s NHL, where puck-movement from the back end is increasingly important, his lack of zone-exit and puck-carrying acumen is problematic. Fortunately for him, he is now in a system where smothering danger and playing low-event hockey seems to be encouraged. That style fits his skill set.

At the end of the day, McCabe is likely something close to a neutral impact player. His shot-suppression ability has led to improved all-around metrics. With him on the ice, the Sabres allowed six-percent fewer unblocked shots-against versus their team average.

Because Buffalo registered nine-percent fewer unblocked shots-for compared to the league average, his one-percent negative impact in that regard didn’t really make much of a dent. That, paired with his presumably positive compliment to Ristolainen, has contributed to a much more attractive RAPM model for 2019-20.

Ideally, McCabe would serve as a defensive specialist on a third-pairing for a playoff contending team. While he wasn’t asked to do too much this season, he was asked to preserve leads, and serve on the penalty-kill on a consistent basis (often against opposing scoring lines).

On a team that only had a couple truly reliable defensive-zone assets on the blueline, he proved useful, despite somewhat frequent mental mistakes, and the aforementioned zone-exit struggles.

Season Grade: C+