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Are the Maple Leafs asking too much of Jake McCabe?

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Photo credit:Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
8 months ago
I’m not too sure how nostalgic Jake McCabe would be about playing Chicago. Spending much of last season at the bottom of the league probably meant that coming to Toronto was a bit of a relief for him. Of course, coming to Toronto hasn’t been the smoothest of transitions. The Maple Leafs knew they wanted McCabe last season but didn’t know where they wanted to play him. Much of the end of the season saw McCabe cycling through a number of defensive partners before landing on T.J. Brodie as his partner for the playoffs and with that the toughest assignments. This season, McCabe has been handed a partner who doesn’t really have any interest in playing defence, and one that he was absent for the entirety of the preseason. That doesn’t particularly bode well for McCabe either. Organizationally and in the eyes of the fanbase it seems the expectation was that McCabe replace Jake Muzzin. And while he’s certainly lived up to how Muzzin was playing in his final regular season, I’m sure the expectation was closer to “in his prime” Jake Muzzin and that is a far less reasonable as of McCabe. Still, we should know that McCabe can be better and most importantly it is vital for the Leafs defensive success that he figures himself out, so let’s take a quick look at what went right for McCabe in Chicago last year and what’s going wrong two games into this year in Toronto.
Now it seems kinda funny to say “what went right in Chicago” and talk about last season. Outside of the draft lottery I’m pretty sure the answer is nothing. The Leafs might beg to differ as McCabe, Lafferty, and Domi would have all been considered bright-ish spots and they found their way to Toronto. This isn’t about all of that, just McCabe and while he had a stellar season by the numbers to end the year in Toronto and those results far exceeded what he did in Chicago, there was some pre-playoff sheltering occurring as well and that is even clear from the 5v5 ice time (16:36 last season) compared to the playoffs (19:07) and this season (18:16). And it’s probably worth noting that at no point in his career before coming to Toronto was McCabe playing that much of 5v5 hockey.
McCabe’s numbers in Chicago last season most importantly featured a CA/60 at 59.05, a GA/60 of 2.53, and a xGA/60 2.75. Outside of his 2.29 xGA/60 in the playoffs, all of McCabe’s numbers were worse for Toronto in the playoffs despite being better in the regular season last year and through the first two games this season, McCabe’s numbers are horrific as well. (72.23 CA/60, 8.21 GA/60, and 4.76 xGA/60.) It would be damned near impossible for his numbers to continue being as bad as they are this season and things like early season cobwebs, a new partner, and 20 games for his stats to normalize will help that, but that doesn’t change two games and both have been bad.
(Who disconnected Klingberg’s controller?)
Instinctively I want to blame John Klingberg for the decline in McCabe’s numbers and honestly compared to TJ Brodie that drop off is understandable, but the reality is Jake McCabe is used to playing with partners he has to carry defensively. In Chicago his most frequent partner was Seth Jones last season. Jones has a well earned reputation for high event hockey and while he might be more present in the defensive zone than John Klingberg seems to be, he hasn’t been good and certainly doesn’t help from a shot suppression stand point. After that McCabe’s most frequent partners were Jack Johnson and Caleb Jones. Caleb is essentially his brother without any of the upside and Jack Johnson’s struggles with playing defence at an NHL level have been well documented in recent years. John Klingberg is pretty much the norm for McCabe.
So what does make things better on this front for McCabe? He won’t be partnered with Brodie in the regular season good, but continuing on as bad as things have been for the first couple of games isn’t really an option either.
Time will obviously help and familiarity will help, both with Mike Van Ryn as a defensive coach, Klingberg as a partner, and for the Leafs goaltenders to settle into the net as well. If things don’t go as smoothly or as quickly as the Leafs would like on that front maybe it is a matter of looking at McCabe seeing more time with Liljegren and Toronto finding a way of sheltering both Giordano and Klingberg a bit more. Not necessarily making them a disastrous third pairing, but recognizing the times in the game when it is more beneficial to play McCabe and Liljegren together. It also seems possible that situationally we might see McCabe and Brodie together for tough assignments while shuffling Rielly over to Liljegren in the process but I can’t imagine there is too much appetite to do anything too drastic while the season is still in the “let’s see what we’ve got” stages.
The other thing to look at is whether McCabe is someone who can handle that 5v5 workload. The last time McCabe average 20:43 in all situations ice time was when he was 23. He’s 30 now and his body is different and compared to previous years he is seeing a lot more of that time during the harder 5v5 shifts. I’m not sure the Leafs have a lot of places to turn for taking his minutes, but in theory if Toronto revisits their 11 forward, 7 defenceman model from late last season there could be some relief.
Reality is the Leafs don’t have a lot of places they can turn for making McCabe’s life easier. He’s the guy they are counting on to play the best hockey of his career to justify a lot of other question marks on their blueline and working him into the ground as their physical blueline presence is going to be what happens. Help will likely be on the way for the Leafs blueline at some point because it pretty much has to be, but even with that the Leafs cap and asset situation means it is going to be more of a supporting role rather than someone who can do similar work to what is being asked of Jake McCabe.
Data sourced from Natural Stat Trick

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