Brayden McNabb is in the running for a spot on the Los Angeles Kings’ blue line in 2014-15. If he isn’t quite up to the task yet, however, L.A.’s management must employ a measured and deliberate approach to his development.
Just as the Kings shouldn’t rush him into the lineup before he’s ready, they shouldn’t be too quick to toss him aside in the face of early jitters.
According to John Hoven of Mayor’s Manor, McNabb has a legitimate shot at earning a place alongside Slava Voynov on the second pairing. That’s a huge opportunity for the 23-year-old, but he may not immediately look the part of an everyday NHL player.
Defensemen often require time to settle into their roles—especially those who focus primarily on keeping their end clean.
Though McNabb is raw in some respects, he’s a key prospect for the Kings and must be handled carefully in order to facilitate rather than stunt his growth.
Standing at 6’4” and 208 pounds, McNabb is an imposing rearguard who has performed very well in the AHL to this point. He’s amassed 102 points and a plus-28 rating in 159 regular-season games at that level.
With that said, his underlying numbers provide cause for optimism.
Despite the modest sample size, he’s acquitted himself nicely in the metrics that matter. In 2011-12, he posted strong relative Corsi and goals-for percentages. In 2013-14—his only other season of big league action—Buffalo again governed a higher percentage of shot attempts and goals when McNabb was on the ice.
While this is a small body of work, the Sabres enjoying better results with McNabb than without him is auspicious—particularly when one considers that he hasn’t piled up points in the NHL.
Buffalo, which conceded 2.96 goals per game last season, allowed a minuscule 1.09 goals per 60 minutes with McNabb on the ice—and he saw the second-toughest zone starts among the team's defensemen to boot.
Beyond the potential for shutdown play on the blue line, McNabb brings a much-needed dimension to L.A.’s defense: physicality.
With 34-year-old Robyn Regehr and 31-year-old Matt Greene slowing down on the bottom two pairings, introducing a swifter bruising presence could strike a terrific balance with the skill (Doughty, Voynov, Jake Muzzin) on the back end.
Just ask Frans Nielsen:
Or Tomas Tatar:
In addition to generating a fair deal of momentum, thumping collisions of this nature deter the other team's forwards from skating into the tough areas.
Better yet, McNabb has managed to throw devastating checks and remain disciplined in the process, registering positive penalty differentials in his two NHL seasons.
How he plays with the puck on his stick can’t be ignored. The Kings are a puck-possession team after all, and their ability to break out of the defensive zone is crucial to the game plan.
Whether he can handle the pressure from forecheckers in the Western Conference gauntlet is unclear. This is without question the biggest question mark in his game, but he’s shown glimpses of sound decision-making and execution in the past.
In the play below, he and Jamie McBain exchange the puck in the defensive zone. After cleverly drawing the pressure his way to buy time for his partner, McNabb (No. 44) is put in a tough position yet finds an open Cody Hodgson with a long pass:
Seconds later, Buffalo finds the back of the net.
Granted, this is a single example. Consistently making the right choices with opponents bearing down on you is another story.
Nevertheless, he’s shown the ability to move the puck adequately, which is a vital attribute on a club which prides itself on dictating the flow of the game. Coupled with strong defense, this is a package that could seamlessly complement a puck-mover's tendencies in L.A.'s top four.
While McNabb’s propensity for delivering brutal hits is a welcome addition, it might not be the right one next to Voynov.
Life as a bruising defenseman almost inevitably carries risk with it, as it’s difficult to regularly throw checks while maintaining positional discipline. Greene and Regehr, who have been caught in no man’s land on more than a couple of occasions lately, can attest to that.
The key is uncovering a middle ground between brute force and sound defense.
Can McNabb find it? Absolutely. Maybe not right way, but there’s no reason he can’t discover that middle ground in due course. However, affording him the time to do so on the second pairing against Western Conference squads that loaded up on offense over the summer is a risky proposition.
This territory becomes even dicier with Voynov potentially by his side. The struggling Russian frequently ends up on the wrong side of the puck when it comes to both offensive-zone pinches and defensive-zone coverage.
Voynov’s futile attempt to hold the blue line in Game 5 of the 2013 Western Conference Final is probably the most memorable of his gaffes:
Pairing him with an open-ice hitter seems like a recipe for a frantic second unit.
On the play below, McNabb (No. 81) attempts to hit Nikolai Kulemin without realizing that Patrick Kaleta isn’t in position to contain a streaking Mikhail Grabovski.
The check doesn’t amount to a defensive stop. Even worse, it leads to a goal against:
McNabb (No. 44) becomes the pincher in the following sequence, jumping up into the play without forward support. Within seconds, the opposition flies down the ice for a back-breaking marker:
Granted, there’s every possibility that McNabb refines his aggressiveness and gains a firmer grasp on the appropriate moments during which to step up. If he can, he’d be a tremendous partner—the calm safety valve to Voynov’s mercurial talent.
It’s a gamble. Frankly, the Kings could see a lot of those with these two on the same unit in 2014-15.
The safer bet would be a platoon on the second pairing—both resting Regehr and not throwing McNabb all the way into the fire.
The third pairing isn’t mentioned as an option for McNabb because, in all likelihood, it isn’t one.
Seeing as pairing two puck-movers (Martinez, Voynov) and two defense-first blueliners (McNabb, Greene) would be asking for trouble, Alec Martinez probably can't make the jump to the second pair.
Meanwhile, despite Voynov’s rough patch in the last year, he still possesses a firm hold of a second-unit slot due to his pre-2013-14 performance and status as the right-hander most capable of eating up big minutes on the team behind Drew Doughty.
Then there’s head coach Darryl Sutter’s preference for putting defensemen on their natural sides.
In a nutshell, lefties McNabb, Regehr and Jeff Schultz will vie for the lone spot that’s up for grabs on the depth chart: the left side on the second unit.
With tons of experience and a decent couple of seasons with the Kings, Regehr should be viewed as the front-runner. However, there’s no telling how much of an impact Father Time will make on him next season. Speedsters have already begun to leave him in the dust.
Having fared well in a short postseason stint with the Kings in 2013-14, Schultz is another veteran candidate for the job. It’s not clear whether he’s up for a full-time gig or just spot duty, though. In the last season during which he suited up for more than 40 games (2011-12), his numbers were ugly.
Considering the doubt surrounding the other candidates, McNabb has an outside chance of landing on the second pair to start the year.
With the possibilities of injuries and demotions to the elder statesmen (Greene, Regehr), he’ll almost certainly see time there at some point during the campaign as well.
At the very least, he'll be carried as an extra body this season, as LA Kings Insider's Jon Rosen notes that he would have to pass through waivers to rejoin Manchester in the AHL.
There's no way general manager Dean Lombardi would let that happen after dealing two solid prospects (Hudson Fasching, Nicolas Deslauriers) to acquire him.
If McNabb is granted a shot to crack the big club and hits the ground running by displaying the requisite levels of composure and defensive acumen, he’ll etch his name onto the organization’s list of building blocks on the back end alongside Doughty, Voynov and Muzzin.
If he fails to do so immediately, the Kings must employ a long-term perspective in assessing whether the lanky blueliner fits into the team’s plans.
Is he teachable? How far is he from reaching his potential as a fundamentally sound NHL player?
L.A. signed him to a two-year deal on Monday, so management has plenty of time to extend the audition process.
Moreover, the team has Regehr and Schultz on the roster as insurance policies.
Since Regehr’s contract runs out next summer and Schultz’s deal expires after 2015-16, the Kings have the personnel in place to ease McNabb into the picture over the next couple of years instead of straining to fit a square peg into a round hole right now.
Let him watch. Let him learn.
Teams often lose patience with prospects who haven’t panned out by ages 22 to 25, but with full cupboards and savvy contract moves, the Kings have the luxury of time to decide McNabb’s fate.
They should take it.