by Kinsey Janke || for NHL.com
When Chadd Cassidy first met Jake McCabe, the defenseman was 16 years old.
Holding down the blue line for the U.S. National Development Team, McCabe instantly stuck out as a physical player, ready and willing not only to defend the puck, but also to go one step further and create offense for his fellow teammates.
As his coach that first season, Cassidy helped start molding the tools McCabe would eventually use to make his way to the highest level of hockey in the world.
Now together again with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League, McCabe’s development continues to thrive under Cassidy’s watch.
“He’s a very mature kid,” Cassidy said. “At this point, I think he’s adjusted really well. You’re defending against guys that are a lot bigger and a lot stronger than what you’re used to, and so he’s had to figure out different ways to defend and to create offense.”
The 21-year-old Eau Claire, Wis., native was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the second round (No. 44) of the 2012 NHL Draft, one of only two collegiate players selected in that round. The Sabres signed him last spring as he was coming off his best season yet at the University of Wisconsin, leading all Badger defensemen with 25 points in 36 games as a junior.
McCabe’s two-way game proved effective even then, as among all Big 10 conference defensemen during the 2013-14 season, he was second in both power-play and overall scoring.
“What grew my game the most in college was working under [Mike] Eaves and Gary Shuchuk,” McCabe said. “I can’t speak enough about Coach Eaves and how he just prepares you to be a pro. The confidence they had in me really helped me grow as a player. It was a great three years there. It was tough to leave.”
While McCabe made his professional debut with the Sabres at the tail end of last year, he has spent the bulk of this season playing in the AHL with the Americans, honing his game and making the adjustments needed to permanently stay in Buffalo. Still, that first NHL game never quite fades, and his reaction to sharing it with those who matter most gives McCabe another intangible that can’t be taught.
“All my friends and family came for it in St. Louis, and I was beyond nervous,” he said. “I remember I couldn’t even feel my legs in warm-ups. It just kind of showed me that I can play at that level and can compete with the best of them. It was really exciting to have my friends and family there that have supported me my whole life. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”
Though currently sidelined with an injury sustained in Rochester’s Mar. 4 game against Utica, the rookie defenseman has pieced together an impressive first season. Second among Amerks defensemen in points (27) and placing in the top 20 in both AHL rookie and AHL defensemen scoring, McCabe posted 10 points in 11 games in the month of February.
“At the start of the year, my game was inconsistent,” McCabe said. “I couldn’t string together consecutive games, but the coaching staff and my teammates helped me out a lot. This past month or two I really felt confident, and like I could play in all situations, and my coaching staff was giving me that confidence.”
“There’s going to be a lot of nights in this league that are going to be very difficult, but I think Jake has handled it very well,” Cassidy added. “He recently had that call-up where I thought he played really well up in Buffalo, and that’s because he did such a good job of preparing himself down here.”
For Cassidy, already knowing McCabe’s skill set and what he could bring to the table, finding out where McCabe was heading on Draft Day was just as thrilling for him as it was for McCabe and his family.
“I was really excited,” he recalled. “He was exactly what we needed, and what we will need going forward. He’s very tough to play against, and he’s got a lot of offensive ability. I reached out to him right away when he got drafted, and told him I was really excited to have him on board with the organization.”
That familiarity has been a boost to McCabe in his rookie season, a stroke of good fortune both on and off the ice.
“I’m a different player now than I was then, but I think at the same time, he knows me and he knows what I can bring to the table,” McCabe said. “It’s nice to have a coach that knows a little bit about you, and he’s someone that I can talk to without it being too awkward having conversations about whatever it may be. That’s definitely been a nice thing to help me settle in here.”
The Sabres have been busy in the last few weeks retooling their roster and making big moves in order to bolster the future of their team. Many Amerks players have been up and down, making the hour drive between Blue Cross Arena and First Niagara Center countless times. McCabe’s most recent two games with the big club came just last week, pairing with Rasmus Ristolainen as the Sabres took three of four points from Nashville and Columbus.
“He’s got a great future in Buffalo. I think he’s done a great job of doing everything he can at this level to make sure he’s prepared for it,” Cassidy said. “Depending on what happens the rest of year up in Buffalo, and getting into the summer and training camp next year, he’s going to be ready to take a lead role on that team and he’s going to have a really good NHL career.”