Blackhawks’ Jake McCabe frustrated about yet another losing season

GLENDALE, Ariz. –This hasn’t been the Blackhawks season Jake McCabe envisioned.

“I’m prettyunhappy with it,” he said Wednesday, wasting no words. “We weren’t winning this year. [We] had pretty high expectations and didn’t get it done.”

McCabe can’t be blamed for feeling frustrated. He left the Sabres after six losing years and signed with the Hawks as a free agent last summer, optimistic about the fresh start in his offseason home city, only to suffer through arguably his most miserable season yet and see his new team launched into a rebuild a few steps behind the Sabres.

At age 28, as he wraps up his seventh season as a full-time NHL defenseman, he has yet to make the playoffs. He has yet to even enjoy a tight playoff race. In 422 career appearances entering Wednesday, he has experienced 163 wins and 259 losses.

And with three years left on his Hawks contract, his record seems destined to get worse in the seasons ahead –although he’s not about to declare defeat himself.

“Yeah, it sucks,” he said. “But I’m committed to helping turn this thing around here and continuing to work my butt off every night and trying to help us find a culture and identity here.”

Of course, McCabe’s individual struggles this season are one of many factors that have contributed to the Hawks’ team struggles. He admitted he’s equally “unhappy” with his own season.

When ex-general manager Stan Bowman signed him last summer, McCabe’s impressive analytics in Buffalo had convinced him McCabe could complete the Hawks’ reconstructed defense and form a shutdown pairing alongside longtime friend Connor Murphy.

None of that has come to fruition. The Hawks’ defense has remained equally porous and ineffective. Murphy has battled injuries. And McCabe’s analytics have taken an ill-timed dive.

McCabe allowed 55.6 shot attempts (per 60 even-strength minutes) with the Sabres; he has allowed 64.4 with the Hawks. He allowed 24.7 scoring chances with the Sabres; he has allowed 31.8 scoring chances with the Hawks. He allowed 2.62 goals with the Sabres; he has allowed 3.58 goals with the Hawks. Those numbers match what has been visibly evident –that McCabe has gotten lost in coverage or been caught in transition too often.

Intriguingly, he has shown a bit more offensive upside than expected. He has tallied 20 points, tied for ninth on the team and second among team defensemen (behind only Seth Jones); his 0.99 points per 60 even-strength minutes are a career high. But those flashes of offense haven’t fully made up for his defensive shortcomings.

“We’d like to see our ‘D’ play a little bit more defense,” interim coach Derek King said April 1 when asked about McCabe. “[He] doesn’t have to be jumping up in the rush all the time. There’s a time and place for it. I’m happy for him. He’s creating stuff. But we’ve got to watch ourselves.”

King took a slightly softer stance Wednesday.

“For the most part, [McCabe has] played pretty well for the season we’ve had as a team,” he said. “He’s really good on the ‘PK.’ he’s a smart player. But sometimes when you’re in the situation like we’re in, [where] you lose some bodies [and] we’ve got young kids in the lineup, it’s not easy to play. It gets a little sloppy at times. So hopefully he’s one that can settle things down.”

Coming off major knee surgery in March 2021, it’s fair to wonder if McCabe hasn’t been 100% healthy this season; he has appeared slow to get up at times, especially lately. He also played through an illness a few weeks ago.

One way or another, though, it hasn’t been the season he envisioned.

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