BUFFALO – Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe, like most hockey players, has a pretty straightforward nickname he was given years ago, “Caber.”
But these days, McCabe, 23, is a top-pair defender, skating in every situation for a team whose blue line has been ravaged by injuries in recent weeks.
So the Wisconsin native’s versatility has earned him another moniker.
“We joked around, called him ‘The Swiss Army Knife,’” center Ryan O’Reilly said Thursday after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s tilt against the Washington Capitals at KeyBank Center. “He does everything well. He’s tough to play against. He’s good offensively. He’s good defensively.”
McCabe has quietly morphed into the Sabres’ unsung hero in the last month, averaging 23 minutes, 47 seconds of ice time in the last 14 games.
“I expect a lot of myself,” McCabe said. “I know how I can play and the way I can play. I started to bring it a little bit more in the last four or five games.”
It’s not crazy to think McCabe and Ristolainen, 22, could be the team’s top tandem for years to come.
McCabe played a career-high 28 minutes, 52 seconds in Monday’s 3-2 overtime loss in Washington, a game he spent defending superstar Alex Ovechkin.
“Whenever I see 97 (McDavid) or 8 (Ovechkin) hop over the boards … I know I’m going out there, too,” McCabe said. “It’s one of those things where … I’m going out there, I’m going to shut them down and hopefully provide some offense.”
He added: “With the injuries that we’ve had … I need to be relied upon and maybe take a little bigger role and just play with that little swagger, take pride in shutting down a team’s top line, just going out there with an attitude like I belong to be out there.”
To Bylsma, McCabe is “playing his best hockey for us right now.”
“They’ve been a good pair against the other team’s tough guys and top guys,” he said. “I think that’s a little bit of growth and maturity for Jake.”
McCabe has grown rapidly in the last 14 months. He enjoyed a stellar training camp in 2015, forcing the Sabres to keep him.
A year ago at this time, McCabe said, the Sabres finally told him to find a place to live because he wouldn’t be returning to the AHL, where he spent the majority of 2014-15, his first full pro season.
McCabe began this campaign with some new comfort and more confidence.
“It’s stability and know that I belong here and know that I can be a top-four defenseman in the NHL and with this team,” McCabe said.
Early last season, McCabe said, he was worried about making the Sabres and pressing.
“This year, I know the player I am and know the way I can play, just the comfort level with the coaching staff and the players and my role with the team, I think I can be a leader – and we have a lot of good leaders in this room – just by the way I play,” he said.
Right away this season, Bylsma noticed a change in McCabe.
“I’ve seen a big difference in his game – on the ice, in practice, just his mindset,” he said. “He’s a guy who’s coming into being a leader on our team, and that’s how he’s playing on the ice.”
That’s why McCabe was upset following Tuesday’s win. Sure, the Sabres roared back late. But they also blew a commanding 2-0 lead, chasing the Oilers for the final 30 minutes of regulation.
“He’s a guy who’s taken a lot of responsibility for that and taking it on his shoulders, and that’s something that’s coming in his game, developing in his game and we need more of in his game,” Bylsma said.