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Everyone in the Kingdom remembers the 2014 trade deadline, when Los Angeles Kings’ GM Dean Lombardi traded the disappointing Matt Frattin and some draft pics to the Columbus Blue Jackets for scoring sensation Marian Gaborik. The rest was history, (*cough* Gaborik scored 14 goals and 22 points and helped the Kings win their second Stanley Cup *cough*).
But the Gaborik trade wasn’t the only deal that the Kings’ had made that day. Hiding in the shadows was a smaller move that Lombardi had made when they traded their popular prospect Hudson Fasching, (popular as in it was a lot of fun to say his name, especially 3 times fast like Beetlejuice!) and Nicolas Deslauriers to the Buffalo Sabres for the promising defenseman but not very well known Brayden McNabb.
At 6’4 and 208 pounds but with only 57 NHL games of experience, it was hoped by the Kings’ that McNabb could potentially develop into a solid and reliable piece to the Kings’ overall defensive core or in other words, be someone who could replace the soon to be departing (because of free agency), Willie Mitchell.
McNabb finished off the 2013-14 season with the Kings’ AHL affiliate (at the time) the Manchester Monarchs and received praise from the coaching staff there immediately after impressing them when he played with a serious physical edge by throwing his weight around on that ice and crushing whatever opposing player that dared skate near him. It turned out that McNabb also adapted very well to playing well in many critical situations such as being able to play on both the powerplay and penalty kill as well as being able to play on either the right or left defensive side.
During the following year’s training camp, LA Kings’ coach Darryl Sutter took notice of McNabb’s potential and selected him to make the Kings’ main roster as their seventh defenceman (and a regular healthy scratch). After the shocking and blindsiding Slava Voynov’s “incident,” there was suddenly an open playing roster spot available for McNabb. In time he was slotted alongside the Norris Trophy candidate Drew Doughty, who played regularly against the other team’s best players. McNabb was being baptized by fire without any time to catch his breath.
The Kings were the defending Stanley Cup champions but their defense of the Cup during that 2014-15 season had been a disaster both on and off the ice. McNabb on the other hand, continued developing at a rapid pace due to his enhanced playing time as Doughty’s partner. He finished his full NHL season with 22 points in 71 games and a plus 11. Not too shabby for someone who was expected to play back as a stay at home defenseman while Doughty rushed up into the offensive zone with the puck.
This current season though, McNabb has taken a step back in his development, and Coach Sutter dropped him down from the top defensive pairing with Doughty to the third pairing with Luke Schenn, which also meant that McNabb’s ice time was reduced from 21 minutes to 18, (sometimes even less that that).
So what happened to McNabb? Well, he just simply wasn’t consistent enough in his overall play. The physical hunger that the young player seemed to have had during his first full year in the NHL had disappeared and he had become timid, almost invisible on the ice. He had become prone to being at fault for creating dangerous turnovers that had led to goals by the opposing teams and though his skating skills had never been the best, they seemed to have regressed along with his balance. While struggling in this current slump, McNabb’s lack of confidence with the puck and his poor positioning started to noticeably grow and stand out. With that, he was thrown in to Sutter’s legendary dog house and Lombardi brought back Rob Scuderi to the Kings in a trade to help re-solidify the teams’ defense and bring some old school (as in the 2012 LA Kings are now considered old school) leadership.
The fall of McNabb’s play had lot to do with the fact that the Kings embarrassingly didn’t make the playoffs last season. The mission for this current season from day one, was to get back into the playoffs by any means necessary … so the Kings could once again make a run for another Stanley Cup victory. With veteran players and leaders like Willie Mitchell gone and Matt Greene (who Dean Lombardi wants Luke Schenn to play more like) injured, there was a lot of pressure on the shoulders of the young McNabb to fill in their large shoes (skates) and he did the best he could, but was failing. Remember, McNabb is only in his second full year of playing in the NHL so accomplishing that feat was unfairly difficult for him. There was still a lot of developing that he needed to do.
Now on the third defensive pairing with the veteran Schenn (while Scuderi plays alongside Doughty), McNabb has started to slowly bring his game back up to acceptable levels. He’s hitting harder, holding on to the puck longer and making sharper plays. The pressure of playing head to head against the top lines of the NHL was now gone and replaced with the assignment of just focusing on his game and keeping things simple. By doing just that, it seems McNabb is once again growing in confidence and it’s showing with his overall play.
On July 1st, McNabb will become a restricted free agent and most are assuming the Kings are going to re-sign him back, possibly to some type of bridge contract. It isn’t time for the Kings to give up on the Brayden McNabb experiment yet as he will only get better, stronger and more technically sound with each passing season. In short time, he will be an important and huge asset to the Los Angeles Kings and their overall defensive system but for now he’s happy to be back in shadows and unseen, even forgotten about but in those shadows he will be growing as a talent, his hunger to compete in harder challenges will return and he will become more intense until one day he will be unleashed on the opposing top lines once again, reminding them who he is and making them wish that the Kings had forgotten about him too.
* Special thanks to David J. Villa for the awesome featured picture he made for this article.