Hudson Fasching and Casey Nelson were in college a week ago. They will make their NHL debuts Saturday. Jake McCabe understands the exhilarating mix of joy, fear and nervousness coursing through their bodies.
It wasn’t long ago that he was in the same situation.
The Sabres signed McCabe at the conclusion of his junior year at Wisconsin and brought him to Buffalo immediately. He played in the final seven games of the 2013-14 season and remembers the experience well.
“I was scared,” the defenseman said Friday. “My first encounter with the team was on the plane. I flew here, had physicals in the morning and then we flew to St. Louis. I stepped on the plane knowing maybe a couple guys. You’re nervous.
“You’re walking into an NHL team, and you’ve got guys who are looking at you. They’re obviously not thrilled with where they’re at in the standings, and here comes a college kid that has no experience and is thrown into the fire.”
As terrifying as it sounds, McCabe wouldn’t have traded it for anything.
“It was a good experience, and I think it’ll be good for these guys,” said McCabe, who will join the newcomers in hosting Winnipeg at 1 p.m. in First Niagara Center. “You just get to see all the high-caliber players in this league and how fast the game is and just what the game is all about up here. You get a little taste of it before summertime, and it just gives you that extra motivation when you go back and train. You go that extra mile to get that extra work in just to get to this level.”
The work has paid off for McCabe, who has come a long way in two years. Just 22 years old, he has grown into a top-four defenseman whose skating and smarts have him on the ice at key parts of the game.
“I love playing with him,” said defense partner Zach Bogosian. “He’s a good skater, plays the game the right way. He’s always eager to get better and learn. It’s fun playing with him.”
As Bogosian said the word “fun,” his face exploded into a smile.
“As a defenseman, you’re pretty much with the guy all the time,” Bogosian said. “I play five-on-five with him and kill penalties with him. We have fun with it. There’s a time and place to be serious, but there’s also a time and place to have fun. We do a good job of balancing out both.
“If something funny happens out there, we get a good chuckle out of it. If we’re winning and I give him a bad pass, he’ll say something to me and I’ll say something back to him. It’s just that bond that you can jab back and forth with each other. It makes it fun to be out there with him.”
Success adds to the fun. The duo has been just as important to the Sabres as the top pair of Rasmus Ristolainen and Josh Gorges. McCabe has topped 20 minutes of ice time in the last 11 games, bringing his average to 18:56. He has three goals and 12 points in 69 games while being one of only two players with a positive plus/minus ratio. He’s at plus-1, and Marcus Foligno is at plus-4.
“What I’ve been trying to do all year is take feedback from coaches and veteran guys and just try to improve every day,” said McCabe, who feels consistency is the best trait any player can learn. “Whether you have it or you don’t, you’ve still got to bring it every night. It’s a long season, but at the same time there’s no excuses.
“You have a role and there’s things that are expected of you. You have to produce. That’s the whole trust thing. You’ve got to trust your teammates to do the same thing. You have to fulfill your role.”
The lesson about consistency is pounded home every time McCabe looks at the standings. He knows that being better in just one game per month would have put Buffalo in the mix for a playoff spot.
“Every team can beat any other team on any given night,” McCabe said. “Each team has high-caliber players and world-class players. You need to be ready to go every single night. You can’t take nights off because teams will make you pay.”
He hopes Fasching and Nelson will see that.
“It’s not easy, and they’ll realize that as these next couple weeks go by,” McCabe said. “It’s a weird thing, but they’ll be better because of it.”