The 2012 NHL Draft will feature many excellent defensemen, a number of whom are projected to be taken in the first round. And while University of Wisconsin freshman Jake McCabe may not be among those expected to be chosen in the opening round, he is a player that is definitely worth keeping an eye on at the Draft.
McCabe came to Wisconsin after two years with the U.S. National Team Development Program (USNTDP). Last season, McCabe posted 16 points (four goals, 12 assists) in 46 games.
The Eau Claire, WI native comes from a hockey family. His father, David played his collegiate hockey at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. His older brother, Andrew currently plays at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
In addition to Wisconsin, McCabe was also recruited by a number of other schools as well, including the University of Notre Dame, the University of Minnesota, and the University of North Dakota. But after taking his visit to the Madison campus, McCabe felt that Wisconsin was where he wanted to be.
"When I took my visit to Wisconsin, they were pretty much my number one choice the whole time. After visiting and talking to other schools, I realized that Wisconsin was where I wanted to play. I haven’t regretted being here not one bit. Being here at Wisconsin has been awesome and it’s the best place to play college hockey."
At the University of Wisconsin
To date, McCabe has played in 17 games for the Badgers, posting six points (three goals, three assists). He notched his first collegiate career point (an assist) versus Minnesota-Duluth on December 9th. His first goal, which came on January 6th versus RIT, proved to be the game-winner on the power play. His two game-winning goals are currently tied for most on the team.
In late October, McCabe suffered a severed tendon his left hand and missed the next ten games. He returned to the Wisconsin lineup on December 9th. As McCabe explains, missing much of the first half of his rookie season was frustrating, but he persevered.
"It was frustrating at first. I was just kind of coming into the college game, getting used to pace and then that fluke hand injury happened five games in. I went through the whole process, like the mental part, and just kind of had to stick with it and rehab as much as possible. I’ve tried to stay in the best shape as possible too. My hand is 100 percent fine now and I think I’m beginning to get the whole college game figured out. Once I came back, I was ready to go. I’ve been progressing with each game, and with each game my confidence has been growing. My minutes have gone up lately, and my legs and body feel great."
Since his return to the Badgers lineup, McCabe has been paired with junior team captain John Ramage (CGY) in even strength situations and top-scoring junior defenseman Justin Schultz (ANA) on the power play. Ramage and Schultz serve as great mentors and role models for the young rearguard.
"With Rammer, he’s knows how to be a good defensive defenseman," said McCabe. "He’s very reliable in the defensive end. He’s a great leader and you could just see how a shutdown-type of defenseman he is. He goes into the corners and puts his big body in there when he battles. I think Schultzy is the best defenseman in college hockey. I don’t think he gets enough credit defensively. Every time he shoots, it always seems to find a way to go in. His poise and control with the puck is second to none. Being able to play with guys like Rammer and Schultzy is just unbelievable and I’ve learned a lot by playing with them."
"I think it helps Jake being with older guys," added Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves. "John has played in a couple of World Junior Championships and he’s our captain, so he can relate those things to Jake. I think it’s been a pretty good match. Jake has also been on the power play with Justin on the left side and I think they enjoy that time together because they can work together, and both of them have the skills that can make them feed off of each other."
One of the things that drew McCabe to Wisconsin was head coach Mike Eaves. And as McCabe notes, his passion for the game and the school makes playing for him an enjoyable experience.
"Coach Eaves is an outstanding coach. He’s got such passion for the game. He’s telling me things like I need to keep my feet moving and just has this serious look on his face. You can just see the passion he has by how hard he works to help us be successful. He’s had so many successful players, especially those that made into the NHL. It’s pretty impressive. He’s also teaching me how to balance school, hockey and social life. He’s taught me that hockey is not going to be there for me forever, so I have to be able to prepare for life after hockey. He really preaches that and makes you understand how important education is. So, it’s really special being coached by a guy like that and I couldn’t ask for a better coach."
For Eaves, the experience of coaching McCabe has been equally enjoyable.
"It’s fun coaching Jake because he’s a freshman who is all here. I will say that I think he’s got some natural leadership abilities. Jake is a no-nonsense kind of guy, almost an old soul for a freshman. For a guy that’s 18 years old, Jake comes in understanding that this is the way it is, and let’s get things done now. And for an 18 year old to kind of think like that, I think speaks to his upbringing with the way his parents raised him.
The hand injury was unfortunate because it took him out of the flow of the season. He was just starting to get his feet wet in terms of getting some college games under his belt, trying to figure out what the pace was and all those kinds of things. So it took him a little while to get going. I think he’s really starting to play like the way we hope he would and I think he’s catching up to the point where we’re seeing things that we thought we would see."
McCabe converted to defense from forward during his Bantam days and projects to be a terrific two-way defenseman. He possesses a nice combination of size (6’1, 200 pounds), grit and puck-moving ability. Despite missing a good portion of the first half of the season, McCabe has adjusted well to the college and plays a solid game at both ends of the ice. He is remarkably strong for a freshman and uses his strength, size and reach quite advantageously, particularly in protecting the puck and in his own end. And as his development progresses, those qualities will become more pronounced.
One of McCabe’s best attributes is his puck skills. He is part of Wisconsin’s top blue line unit on the power play and could potentially quarterback the Badgers power play in the future. McCabe demonstrates tremendous poise with the puck, has a hard shot and can get pucks to the net. He has really nice hands and his passing skills are excellent, however he’ll need to improve moving the puck more quickly, which should come with experience. His outlet passes are also very good.
Another notable characteristic of McCabe’s is his skating. He has good agility and moves well both north-south and laterally. He is also very good in transition too. McCabe has decent foot speed, but admits that it is an area that he feels needs continued improvement.
"I think one of my weaknesses is my skating. I try to work on my skating every day. I work on things like getting my knees bent so that I can be a more efficient skater. I wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily a slow skater, but I just need to be able to skate through and just trying to find that next gear. If I do that, I’ll be that much quicker and I’ll be able to decide what to do with the puck that much quicker."
What makes McCabe so effective in defensive situations are his stick work and grit. His stick skills allow him to effectively take away time and space. He thrives in the physical aspects of the game and plays with a good deal of intensity.
"Jake likes the physical play," said Eaves. "I think its something that comes to him naturally. He likes sticking his head and body in there to compete for loose pucks. Jake’s a pretty thick body for being a freshman as far as being a big man. And because of his size and his physicality, Jake enjoys battling in the corners and battling out front. I think he enjoys that part of the game. When it comes down to a one-on-one situation, it’s been made very clear here that Jake has the heart of wrestler. He likes that one-on-one combativeness and because of that, I think that will serve him well. It’s something that I don’t think gets noticed as much as people might think."
For such a young player, McCabe thinks the game remarkably well. He possesses excellent vision and anticipates/follows play quite well. While his decision-making does need to improve, it should come with development and maturity.
"I think in the growth area right now it’s in his ability to understand the urgency that the game needs to be played at as a defenseman," Eaves says of McCabe. "Sometimes when he has a little time, Jake doesn’t understand that that time is a precious commodity, and that he gets got to get back harder for his defensive partner and harder for his goaltender to be an outlet for them. He just kind of takes his time going back. But Jake is starting to get that factor. He’s working on those things and he’s seems to have a good hockey IQ in that he understands the concept of that and is getting better in those areas."
So how does McCabe describe himself as a player?
"I would say that I’m a two-way defenseman. I take care of my own end first. I try to set up plays as soon as possible, and make those first passes to my forwards. I like to get up into the play and be able to create offense and have the option of a line rush. I try to get into the holes and take my shots when it’s there. I just want to play well at both ends of the ice. But first thing’s first, which is taking care of my defense and then step up offensively."
"I think one of my strengths is my size. I’m 6’1, 200 pounds, with a solid frame. I’ve also improved my ability to play on the power play, especially playing with Justin Schultz. I think my poise with the puck has really improved too. I have more confidence and am not scared about making plays myself rather than giving it up to one of my teammates. I think I have a good hockey IQ, I can see the ice pretty well, and can jump up and make plays when the time is right. I can contribute offensively as well defensively."
McCabe lists Nashville Predators defenseman and former Badger Ryan Suter as his favorite NHL player and the one he tries to pattern his style of play after.
"Suter’s a classic two-way defenseman and he’s a Wisconsin boy as well. He’s playing almost 30 minutes a night with the Nashville Predators. He’s just so steady defensively because he can shut down players. He continually is in the plus-category almost every night. He’s contributing offensively on the power play too. He’s just a really, really solid two-way defender. I just try and pick up things watching him. He’s pretty impressive. I think Suter does a great job of being a shutdown-type of player, taking away time and space and just transitioning offensively, so that’s what I’m trying to keep developing. I just want to be a steady two-way guy that can shutdown defensively and contribute offensively, and I think Suter does a great job of that."
In addition to Ryan Suter, Wisconsin has seen numerous former players go on to play in the NHL in recent years, including Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan with the New York Rangers, Jamie McBain with the Carolina Hurricanes, and Blake Geoffrion with the Nashville Predators. Junior Justin Schultz will likely become the next Badger to play in the NHL. And Wisconsin hopes that one day McCabe will be able to follow those players.
"I think time will tell if Jake can (reach the NHL), I sure hope so," intoned Eaves. "Jake has the things that you can’t teach. I think he’ll be a well-rounded defenseman. You want guys that can jump up in the play, be very efficient without the puck and compete. So I think Jake will fit that mold pretty well. The (Wisconsin) guys that have gone on to the NHL are there because they have natural abilities and work very hard. The coaches that we have had here have been able to help them learn about the game and help them continue their growth. We hope that Jake will fall into that category because he’s definitely got things that you’re not going to teach him. We hope that we can expand Jake’s vision of the game and help with his training and strength to be successful at that (NHL) level."
Jake McCabe is the highest-ranked current collegiate defenseman in this year’s Draft. He is ranked 47th on Central Scouting’s mid-term rankings. McCabe is projected to go late in the second round or early in the third round.