Buffalo Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe had about as solid a year as a 22 yr. old rookie d-man could have in the NHL. Sure there were some trouble spots along the way but on a team with a minus-21 goal differential, McCabe leading the team with a plus-6 rating and being one of only two players to be above even in plus/minus (70+ games) is a pretty solid accomplishment.
When defenseman Zach Bogosian returned from injury 17 games into the 2015-16 season, he and McCabe were the team's mainstays on the second pairing for most of the remaining season. Head coach Dan Bylsma called them a "formidable pair" after a game in December and then said, "We've counted on [Rasmus] Ristolainen and Gorges to play hard minutes against some good players, but now we have a second pair in McCabe and Bogosian that can do a good job against just about anybody."
Gorges acquitted himself quite well for the Sabres last season as while playing above his talent-level and one could easily put him next to Bogosian this season. That may very well happen, but there's a pretty solid match with McCabe and Bogosian as the two play a very similar style of defense. They both hit and block shots but their also both quite mobile with Bylsma saying of the duo, "[They are] two good skating defensemen, two guys who can use that skating ability to defend but also add to the offense."
McCabe averaged 19:07 minutes of ice-time per game, good for fourth amongst Sabres defenseman and he logged an average of 1:24 minutes/game on the penalty kill which was also fourth amongst Sabres d-men. His 114 hits was third as was his 109 blocked shots. With Bylsma using McCabe in more of a defensive mode, the Eau Claire, Wisconsin native only saw a fraction of ice-time on the powerplay.
Having said that, McCabe may still have more to give in an offensive capacity.
Although he focused upon defense last season, McCabe still managed 14 points on four goals and 10 assists while his 6.5 shooting percentage was best amongst Sabres defensemen. He has two things working in his favor from an offensive perspective that may increase those numbers--a penchant for getting his shot through from the point and a smart, sensible pinch to the open area on the weak side in the offensive zone.
Here are the questions we had for him at the end of last season: "How much more offense can he add? As smart as he is on the point, and with a shot that gets through, will he have an opportunity to get some powerplay time? Are we scratching the surface of the amount of playing time he can handle? Is a top-pairing role aside Rasmus Ristolainen in his future? Or will he settle into being an extremely capable No. 3/4?"
McCabe has a simple, honest approach to the game and a pretty long list of accomplishments, both individual and team, plus a maturity beyond his years. He has a blue collar work-ethic and approaches the game in a methodical, yet intense manner while also showing the propensity to bounce back quickly from a mistake. Former Rochester Americans coach Chadd Cassidy, who coached McCabe for a full season in Rochester, called him "genuine" and an "extremely honest, team-first player" while stating rather simply stating that McCabe "has earned everything he's gotten."
That pretty much sums up why he will probably be next to Bogosian on the Sabres second-pairing this year.
He's earned it.
Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster:
LW, Evander Kane / C, Ryan O'Reilly / RW, Kyle Okposo
LW, Tyler Ennis / C, Jack Eichel / RW, Sam Reinhart
D, Rasmus Ristolainen/ D, Dmitry Kulikov
D, Zach Bogosian / D, Jake McCabe
G, Robin Lehner