What the Toronto Maple Leafs are getting in Jake McCabe
Photo credit:David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
By Steven Ellis6 months ago
The Toronto Maple Leafs are really going all in, aren’t they?
GM Kyle Dubas made a big splash on Monday, acquiring defenseman Jake McCabe, forward Sam Lafferty and a pair of draft picks from Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for a conditional 2025 first-round pick, 2026 second-round pick and forwards Joey Anderson and Pavel Gogolev.
The Eastern Conference arms race has been wild in the past few weeks, with the Tampa Bay Lightning adding Tanner Jeannot, Boston grabbing Dmitry Orlov and the New York Rangers trading for Vladimir Tarasenko and, most likely, Patrick Kane. There’s never a dull moment, and after adding Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari earlier this month, the Leafs kept the ball rolling. In all, they added four key roster players without trading one away – and still holding on to the team’s top prospects like Matt Knies and Topi Niemela.
The key piece here is McCabe. The Leafs needed to add another impact defenseman and McCabe has averaged just under 20 minutes throughout his career. McCabe is a left-shot defender who can handle his own on the right side and can step into a more crucial role if needed. The best value is sending him out to make life miserable for a team’s top line while leading late, something he handles very well.
McCabe’s ceiling isn’t that high, and nobody will mistake his style with that of Bryan McCabe (no relation) from back when he was putting up 45 points a year all those years back. But you’re getting someone who handles the nuanced aspects of the game as well as anyone currently in the Leafs lineup, and at just $2 million (the other half was retained by Chicago), the value is tremendous.
So, what type of player is McCabe?
Top four potential
It’s unlikely the Leafs will need McCabe to play a ton of top-four minutes. By all accounts, expect a solid dip in his ice time.
But he did exactly that in Chicago and was effective. For reference: the Blackhawks are a brutal team with a minus-53 goal differential at 5-on-5. With McCabe on the ice, the Blackhawks outscored opponents 41-39 with McCabe this year. Don’t take that for granted – Chicago would have trouble beating high-quality AHL teams with the group they have this year. So kudos to McCabe.
For those who have no idea what you’re looking at, I’ll keep it simple: the left chart matters the most. The numbers are purple and pointing up. That’s good.
According to Evolving-Hockey, McCabe’s goals-above replacement (8.8) and wins above replacement (1.5) are first on the Hawks this year. His offensive impact has been much better than expected, but that can be attributed to the role asked of him on a team in the Connor Bedard fight. In Toronto, he won’t be the one trying to generate offense. But his uptick in performance this year while playing a big role in Chicago can’t be understated – if the Leafs need someone to step up in a pinch, he can do it.
McCabe is on pace for the best offensive output of his career, likely in the 25-point range. The reality is that’s the highest you’re likely getting out of him, ever. McCabe is a shutdown, defensive-minded blueliner, and he’ll play exactly that role alongside someone like Justin Holl leading into the playoffs.
McCabe plays a simple game, rarely gets himself in trouble and his defensive instincts are solid. He’s never going to blow you away with a shift-changing play or a quick deke. Just simple, smart hockey. And his hockey IQ is something teams were definitely targeting when McCabe’s name started appearing in trade rumors. He knows his limits, knows what he’s capable of and won’t try to overdo it.
If you want to break down his game in a word? Reliable.
It can be frustrating watching McCabe try and beat players in a puck race. He isn’t quick, his acceleration is very average and faster, more skilled players will try and take advantage by chipping the puck around him. McCabe anticipates plays well, which helps limit the damage, but his lack of a high top speed definitely hurts.
Speaking of pain, McCabe’s injury history can’t be ignored, either. McCabe dealt with a back injury that led to spinal surgery ahead of 2022-23. Obviously, that’s out of his control, but he still has a physical edge to his game and is willing to defend his teammates at all costs. Having major surgery like that hasn’t slowed his play down, but you can’t really ignore the history, either.
So, is he good?
As Tampa Bay has shown in recent years, sometimes the best deals are the ones where you land the impact role players instead of the big fish. Sure, Timo Meier would have been great. And, yeah, Jakob Chychrun would have been an excellent pickup, too. But the cost was too high for both, and, in reality, Toronto’s blueline has been solid this year. For once, it hasn’t been a major concern. But most could agree they needed a bit more oomph, a bit more stability, and the Leafs have about eight blueliners they can count on every single night. What a position to be in.
McCabe should be an everyday fixture right out of the gate. Again, he isn’t flashy, but as long as he’s focused and not trying to outplay himself, his defensive-zone play will make this group much harder to play against.
So, yes. Grabbing McCabe is pretty sizeable. Get ready, Leafs fans.
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