Blackhawks’ Jake McCabe pushing aside trade rumors while getting more involved offensively

MONTREAL — Few NHL players have wanted to sign in one specific place as much as Jake McCabe wanted to sign in Chicago in 2021.

Having grown up and gone to college in Wisconsin, and having lived in River North during his Sabres offseasons for years, it was an obvious first choice. He was thrilled the interest proved mutual, allowing him to sign a four-year contract with the Blackhawks.

Less than two years into that contract, however, the 29-year-old defenseman now finds himself heavily entangled in trade rumors. He understands it, but that doesn’t mean he likes it.

“Given the nature of where we’re at in the standings, it’s just part of it all,” McCabe said Monday. “[It’s] definitely not how I envisioned my tenure going here, being at the bottom of the standings, but it is what it is.”

McCabe does wield a seven-team no-trade clause, which reportedly includes every Canadian team besides the Maple Leafs, but that’s the extent of his control over the matter.

He has drawn “steady interest” on the market, TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported, with the Hawks’ setting an asking price of a first-round pick. They could knock his salary-cap hit down to an extremely enticing $2 million by retaining 50%.

The one silver lining for McCabe would be an opportunity to play in the playoffs, something he hasn’t yet experienced in seven full seasons in the NHL.

“I’ve really enjoyed my time here, and my family loves it,” he added. “I’m going to continue to enjoy it. I can’t control anything outside of that. I’ll just take things day by day.”

In the meantime, McCabe has not only continued playing solid defense — he leads Hawks defensemen in both expected goals percentage and (by a mile) actual goals percentage, as the only one close to a positive plus-minus rating — but has also expanded the offensive side of his game.

He has benefitted the most from an increased team-wide emphasis on set plays — which coach Luke Richardson calls “automatics” — designed to get pucks to defensemen in space along the blue line.

“When we rim pucks out [around the boards] automatically, our defensemen are supposed to be ready for that on the wall,” Richardson said recently. “We have our ‘D’ being active, then we have to trust our forwards at the top to make the right plays so we don’t turn pucks over. It’s starting to work. We’re getting a lot more ‘O’-zone time.”

The entire unit has improved in terms of both volume and accuracy. The Hawks have gone from averaging 15.2 shot attempts by defensemen per game in October through December to 15.8 in January and 21.3 so far in February. Friday against the Coyotes represented their best performance yet, as they recorded a combined 26 attempts.

Likewise, the percentage of shot attempts by defensemen getting through unblocked has risen from 67.5% in October through December to 69.9% in January and 71.9% in February.

But McCabe, in particular, has flourished more than anyone.

On New Year’s Day, he was averaging 1.7 shot attempts per game, of which 65.5% had gotten through unblocked and 50.9% had been on-goal. Since then, he has averaged 3.3 attempts per game, of which a whopping 86.8% have gotten through unblocked and 58.5% have been on-goal.

He has added six assists in the past month, too. With 16 points in 48 games now, he’s on pace to exceed the career high of 22 points he set last season.

“Most teams shrink in the ‘D’-zone pretty tight in this league, so to get it away from their guys [down low] and into some space so we can handle the puck [is helpful],” McCabe said. “Whether we get a shot or just [find] a release point to get it back down to them, it’s a good automatic play.”

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