When I made my (not really a) joke post about the five players the Leafs aren’t getting in trade (one down, four to not go), I included Jake McCabe as a guy they might get. No one is thrilled by this, and I don’t think McCabe himself would be shocked by that. He’s built a career out of the not-thrilling aspects of hockey. Every team needs players like that, and the Leafs have several most fans deeply appreciate, so is McCabe a fit? Just who is he, though?
Is he this guy?
This was McCabe on the Sabres in the short pandemic season. His was even shorter. He arrived high off a very good season the year before where he’d played as Buffalo’s number four defender, and had excellent defensive results on a team without a lot of support in that area. He played a solid fourth defender position again for 13 games and then suffered a serious knee injury. Damage to the ACL, MCL and meniscus knocked him out for the entire rest of that season.
He was a UFA in that summer of 2021, and his outlandishly good small sample of play plus his quality defending in prior years got him a contract with Chicago that’s the sort of thing you give to a legitimate second pair defender: $4 million for four years and a seven-team no-trade list.
Chicago was then forced to shake up their management, and the new GM looked around and decided he didn’t care what Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane wanted to believe, the team was done, a serious tear out and rebuild was in order, something he’s getting to in earnest this year.
McCabe played his first season in Chicago as the number three defender averaging over 20 minutes per game.
It didn’t go well. Not just because the team was terrible, and every player on the ice was one line or pair higher (at minimum) than they should be. McCabe had some kind of back injury that caused him to miss a small amount of time, but there’s nothing about that season that says you should want this guy at all.
And then what happened? Then he had spinal surgery.
In September of 2022, right at the start of this year’s training camp, he underwent cervical (neck) spinal surgery. He was supposed to be out as much as three months, but he played his first game on October 21. By early November, he was hitting 20 minutes TOI most games playing as the co-equal (by ice-time) third-fourth defender with Connor Murphy.
His results are a muddy sort of replacement level defender, neither good nor bad at anything.
I embarked on this journey of getting to know McCabe, because Daily Faceoff did this profile on him. I like their trade deadline work, and I like the format of this kind of profile, but boy was I confused by this one.
He is, per this article:
- a 3rd pair type with PK skill
- a fit for the 3rd pair on a championship roster
- below average mobility, which can cause turnovers
- simple, defence-first defender
Chicago is said to be willing to do full retention, which makes him a $2 million addition.
And that all looks plausible with his post injury performance at age 29. And then they go on to suggest a good fit for him in trade is the Toronto Maple Leafs because they need someone to slot in where Jake Muzzin was. They suggest he might play with T.J. Brodie.
And I’m... what? You think what now? This Toronto Maple Leafs, the one with so many third-pairing studs you can run three third pairs other teams would be jealous of every night, is going to put Jake McSlow in on the second pair with TJ “not all that quick” Brodie and play them behind the John Tavares line. On a team that never “activates” the defence because they’re always on. That Maple Leafs.
Is the confusion here about who McCabe is or who the Leafs are? I feel sympathy for anyone who doesn’t know if the Leafs are those dilettantes who find new ways to give the puck away for four games in a row before they shake awake and play a game like that annihilation of the Capitals. But they don’t seem like a team that needs yet another defenceman who used to be great playing over his head. They already have Giordano. They have Jamie Benn, if you think Muzzin’s hitting is just the one thing they need.
Maybe the confusion is about who Muzzin is. In his last great year, the pandemic season, his most significant impacts were on goal share and shot share. He’s not a simple guy who hits hard and hugs the blueline. He looks like he should be, but he was raised in the Kings system where shotshare is job one. And that’s good, because it should be. He is a puck handler of some skill, a very good passer, he legitimately can be allowed to take point shots because he does them in a useful way, and he can sub in on the power play. He’s not open-ice big man hitter Jake for most of his time on the ice. That’s his hobby, and you shouldn’t mistake the thing he does for fun once in a while for his whole game.
I was sort of meh on McCabe before I really looked at his game, and now I’m all, “but why, though?” about him. Of all the things the Leafs might need, a guy who is not even demonstrably better than Conor Timmins and is dramatically less valuable than Mark Giordano doesn’t tick any boxes.
It’s tradition to suggest the Leafs need a simple stay-at-home defenceman to pair with an offensive defenceman. It’s repeated and repeated and repeated by traditional hockey thinkers and their fans. Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe aggravate the hell out of lots of people who cringe when they see Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren playing together. How dare they go against common wisdom like that! And out comes the suggestion again that someone dull, slow, boring, and an alleged PK wunderkind is what they need. Chicago’s PK is better without McCabe than with him, by the way. PK reputation is awarded based entirely on ice time, not results.
Maybe this scouting report on McCabe, and his results on one of the worst teams in the NHL, undersells his value. Maybe you could put him with Justin Holl, put Brodie back with Morgan Rielly, and prosper in some way. But the sales job Daily Faceoff does on him reads like it’s aimed at someone who nods along when the TSN intermission panel bemoans again the way the Leafs don’t have the right kind of defencemen who hits hard and blocks shots. They just have those zippy little Swedes, and we all know what they’re like.