The Blackhawks still haven’t drafted and developed a defensemen since Niklas Hjalmarsson.
Acquiring a player like Jake McCabe will soften that fact a bit and, ironically, McCabe’s similarities to Hjalmarsson are also what will endear him to Blackhawks fans: he’s quietly effective shutdown defender who is responsible with and without the puck. They are not necessarily similar stylistically, but their roles and how well they have performed at them makes for a decent comparison.
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the second round of the 2012 NHL Draft (44th overall), McCabe went through a traditional development cycle for a defensemen, something that likely helped solidify his skillset without rushing him. He spent two additional seasons in college at Wisconsin and then practically a full season in the AHL with Rochester Americans. Then, at 22, McCabe secured a full-time roster spot with the Sabres in the 2015-16 season. He earned top-four minutes from the start and held that role throughout his tenure in Buffalo. He also performed well in that role despite team-wide quality issues.
Over the last three seasons, McCabe has held his own in shot categories. When on the ice, he owned a 50.34 percent share of the shot attempts, a 50.49 percent share of the shots on goal and a 50.38 percent share of the expected goals. Those numbers may not seem spectacular, but they are when factoring in how terrible Buffalo has been as a team in terms of quality shot possession. To put those stats into perspective, they’re better than Connor Murphy — arguably the Blackhawks best defensive defensemen — in the same span by a 2-3 percent margin.
Additionally, McCabe has put up some of the best defensive goals above replacement (EVD) results among defensemen in the league in recent years. An injury limited his 2021 season to 13 games his results there are too skewed to be accurate, but in the 2019-20 season, his 5.6 EVD was good for 10th best and his 7.2 xEVD was good for second place. Those are on par with or better than defensemen such as Charlie McAvoy and Adam Fox. That’s not to say that McCabe is as good as those two defensemen overall — because they both are more well-rounded — but it shows that, at least defensively, McCabe has the potentially to be one of the best. It’s also a positive trend to see that his expected results are slightly better than his actual as it suggests he’s not reached his full potential on-ice.
McCabe also brings an element to the blueline that has been lacking in recent years: effective physicality. He is able to apply his hitting and strong forechecking skills in a way that is meaningful to his team, either by dislodging a puck to gain possession for his team or to suppress shot opportunities. While his totals aren’t eye-catching (only 4.46 hits per 60 his last full season), McCabe isn’t afraid of laying a big hit on an opponent and he’s usually smart about when to lay the body so as to not take himself out of the play. He also knows how to use his size to his advantage in terms of position and has an active stick in addition to block shooting and passing lanes.
The only area in which McCabe is really lacking is on offense. He’s gotten better about shot contributions — both in terms of shots per 60 and shot assists per 60 — but it’s never translated into points: McCabe has never had more than 20 points in a single season. His zone-entry numbers have also improved year-over-year (as indicated in the charts above) thanks to his ability to recognize which option — carry-in, chip and chase, or dump-in — would be most effective. McCabe tends to rely on quick outlet passes on exits rather than carrying, but he’s typically average in the latter as well. Mostly McCabe can help drive play out of the defensive zone to the other side of the ice, but there’s a disconnect between that and points production. As a result, his even strength offensive goals above replacement tends to be negative (between minus-1.3 and minus-2.6 his last two full seasons).
Ultimately, McCabe is an upgrade over many players the Blackhawks have trotted out on the blue line over the last few years, even if we don’t know how exactly he’ll perform given the team-level quality issues. He’s done well on a similarly bad team and with non-ideal partners, so the hope is that he’ll be able to click with someone on the Blackhawks and work within the (arguably flawed) defensive system to maximize his shutdown potential.