2017-18 Player Review: Brayden McNabb elevated his game as one of Vegas’ top defensemen

McNabb wasn’t the most productive player on the roster, but he proved to be a reliable defensive presence.

In the 2017-18 Player Review series, we will evaluate the 2017-18 performances of each member of the Golden Knights. We have assigned each player a grade, which is a Knights On Ice composite grade made up of our individual ratings. Players were evaluated based on overall performance in both the regular season and playoffs, especially with regard to pre-season expectations and how that player performed in his particular role. NOTE: Only skaters who played in at least 20 games and goalies who played in at least 10 games were included.

When Brayden McNabb was selected from the Los Angeles Kings in last year’s expansion draft, expectations were not high. He had been playing 15 minutes a night the year before and had never played close to 20 minutes a game, having a career high of 18:49 in 2015-16. The idea of him being a top-pairing defenseman was never in the plans. Yet that’s exactly what the Golden Knights got out of McNabb in Year 1, and he was one of the better defensive defensemen for the team all season.

Season in review

Among Knights defensemen, McNabb finished third in ice time at 5-on-5, third at even strength and second on the penalty kill. He missed six games but was one of the most relied upon defensemen all season. Gerard Gallant trusted him to play in difficult defensive situations, and McNabb was always up for the challenge. In fact, he allowed just 74 goals against all season across all situations and just 50 at even strength. McNabb actually had the best relative goal share of all Knights defensemen with an 8.28.

His offensive output may have been disappointing, but that’s not a big part of his game and it’s not part of his role. He scored just 15 points but set a career high in goals with five. All of his points came at even strength, which isn’t too surprising considering McNabb got less than 10 minutes on the power play all season.

The native of Davidson, Saskatchewan had a 50.8 defensive zone start rate at even strength. Again, he was trusted with heavy defensive minutes and was asked to take on many difficult assignments. McNabb also had a solid workload based on competition. He was third on the blue line in time on ice based on competition (29.47), trailing only Nate Schmidt and Luca Sbisa, and he was second in time on ice based on quality of teammates, behind Sbisa and barely ahead of Schmidt (28.03 to Schmidt’s 28).

McNabb maintained solid possession numbers, especially when considering his defensive workload.

McNabb stat comparison: regular season vs. postseason

McNabb in theTime on IceCorsiShot ShareGoal ShareScoring ChanceHigh-Danger ChanceHD Goal ShareOn-Ice Save %Off. Faceoff %
Regular Season1318:2550.9851.9559.0251.2148.1556.670.92249.06

Overall, he helped his defensive partners, though he found more success when paired with offensive-minded players (i.e., Shea Theodore and Colin Miller). That allowed him to watch the defensive zone more closely while his partner drove the play up the ice.

McNabb’s possession stats based on pairing

DefensemenTime On IceCorsiShot ShareGoal ShareScoring ChanceHigh-Danger ShareHD Goal ShareOn Ice Save %Off. Faceoff %
McNabb w/ Schmidt771:2750.6651.0761.4350.8546.7256.250.9348.51
McNabb w/o Schmidt546:5851.4553.2355.7751.75057.140.9150
Schmidt w/o McNabb639:00505053.7353.5255.5241.460.9144.02
McNabb w/ Engelland261:3149.395258.3351.7451.0657.140.91740.63
McNabb w/o Engelland1056:5551.3651.9459.1851.0847.456.520.92351.01
Engelland w/o McNabb1097:4347.6947.9348.0447.7543.26500.91449.43
McNabb w/ Miller176:1655.0653.935553.96054.550.8963.56
McNabb w/o Miller1142:1050.451.6459.850.8146.3757.140.92746.74
Miller w/o McNabb1127:0756.3955.2247.8756.7953.341.180.90361.47
McNabb w/ Theodore46:3461.6865.3810056.3645.45100158.82
McNabb w/o Theodore1271:5150.5151.458.3350.9648.2855.930.9248.86
Theodore w/o McNabb1011:1551.9352.3851.0452.1146.1153.660.9154.57

Interestingly, McNabb’s numbers with and without Schmidt as well as Schmidt’s numbers without McNabb are very similar. Perhaps that’s because they both have strong defensive games or because they played with more offensively-inclined players when not paired together.

McNabb’s heat maps further demonstrate his effectiveness in his own zone.

He was able to keep the slot clear and force the puck towards the circles, and there’s certainly less red in the circles with McNabb on the ice. He used his hulking 6-foot-4, 212-pound body to clear forwards out, and while he’s not the best skater, he excelled when paired with someone with speed.

Standout moment

Although he didn’t have much offense during the regular season, McNabb came alive in the playoffs. He scored five points in 20 games, including two goals. The first one was particularly significant.

It’s Game 4 of the first round. The game is scoreless. The Knights lead the Kings, McNabb’s former team, 3-0 in the series, though every game has been extremely tight. It’s do-or-die time for Los Angeles, and Jonathan Quick is as stingy as ever. Vegas has been trying to score and continues to get quality chances, but the Kings are putting up a good fight as well.

Four minutes into the second period, the Knights have the puck in the offensive zone, and this happens:

The Kings have the scouting report on McNabb’s offensive prowess (or lack thereof). Yet it’s McNabb who finds himself all alone in the circle. Off a perfect cross-ice feed from Reilly Smith, McNabb finds the back of the net on the one-timer, giving Vegas a 1-0 lead it would not surrender. McNabb ends up scoring the series-clinching goal against the team that declared him expendable less than a year earlier. The Kings’ run is cut short, but McNabb and his teammates are just getting started. Now that’s a highlight.

KOI composite grade: B

There are a few main reasons why McNabb’s grade fell out of the A range. The first is his lack of offense. Not putting up that many points, even from the blue line, takes some wind out of the sails when evaluating a player’s performance, no matter how good McNabb was defensively. There’s a very visible trend in the NHL moving towards highly-mobile defensemen who put up points. Defensive defensemen have lost a lot of ground.

Another factor working against McNabb is his speed. At his size, it’s normal to not be blessed with the speed and skating ability of guys like Schmidt and Theodore. But McNabb’s speed inhibited and limited his game at points throughout the season, especially in the playoffs. There are clear memories of him getting burned by the speed of the Capitals in the Stanley Cup Final, and those stick.

Otherwise, McNabb had a very strong season and played way above expectations. He still earns a positive grade, and he did receive an A- from multiple staffers.

Looking ahead to 2018-19

McNabb signed a four-year contract extension with an AAV of $2.5 million at the beginning of last year. The deal, which kicks in this season, runs through the 2021-22 campaign.

He’ll continue to play on the first pairing, at least through the first quarter of the season. He’s one of the more natural replacements to fill the No. 1 defenseman role for Schmidt, who will miss the first 20 games of the season because of a suspension, and he was already a dependable presence even when Schmidt was fully active. Pairing him with Theodore or Miller is a smart move, especially since he’s younger, more mobile and better able to play healthy minutes than Deryk Engelland.

What happens after Schmidt comes back is up in the air, but at most McNabb will be bumped to the second pairing with one of Theodore and Miller. Either way, McNabb should have another strong season.

How would you grade McNabb’s 2017-18 performance

C- or below0

Stats courtesy of corsica.hockey and naturalstattrick.com