EL SEGUNDO AND LOS ANGELES, CA — Rookie defenseman Brayden McNabb was in his coaches’ doghouse.
Indeed, he was a healthy scratch in four of the Los Angeles Kings’ last seven games, and in three straight games prior to returning to the lineup on January 10, in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Winnipeg Jets at Staples Center in Los Angeles. But the 23-year-old, 6-4, 208-pound native of Davidson, Saskatchewan took quite the leap forward on January 12, and perhaps just in the nick of time, helping the Kings shutout the Toronto Maple Leafs, 2-0, at Staples Center.
Against the Maple Leafs, McNabb played what was, arguably, his best game of the season with solid positional play, smart reads, good, quick decisions and strong physical play.
“I don’t know,” McNabb said when asked if he though he had played his best game of the season against Toronto. “I thought I handled myself pretty well. I was physical, at times, when I needed to be, and I thought Drew [Doughty] and I were pretty good on the rush.”
That’s right, the rookie was paired with the superstar, replacing Jake Muzzin.
“It all starts with our gaps, not letting them get the blue line,” McNabb observed. “I think that was the biggest difference for us.”
While several media members agreed about McNabb having played his best game of the season against the Maple Leafs, head coach Darryl Sutter, who is very, very reticent to praise young players, appeared nonplussed after the game.
“[McNabb’s performance] didn’t jump out for me, one way or the other,” he said. “Whomever is playing with Drew is going to have to elevate their game. That’s really clear because Drew has to be on the ice a lot, and he’s out there against [top lines] all the time.”
After practice on January 13, When asked about the team’s defensive effort against Toronto, Sutter gave McNabb some very faint praise.
“If you just look at the checking last night, we got two goals from one line,” said Sutter. “If we don’t get any goals, or any checking, from the other lines, we’re going to lose. That’s clear, and some of our defensemen are going to have to elevate their games.”
“We’re talking about [Alec] Martinez and Drew, how well they’re playing, and Brayden coming in, playing a little bit better. We certainly need some other guys back there to play better than they’re playing. That’s why their minutes are down.”
“It’s a big part of the game. Do you think you’re going to win, 2-0, every night?”
McNabb said that the time he spent as a healthy scratch helped him.
“I didn’t play for a few games, so I put in a lot of work off the ice and after practice,” he noted. “That makes you take a step back and look at games to see what you can do better. Sometimes that helps, and in my case, it helped. Now I’m just doing whatever I can to stay in the lineup.”
“How you’re playing [dictates] what your minutes are going to be,” he added. “For me, [I’ve] got to believe in my instincts and trust my instincts, go out and play, and not think too much. Just play the game.”
Being paired with Doughty has its advantages in that it means more ice time for his partner.
“He makes it easy on you,” McNabb noted. “When you give him the puck, you know he’s going to do something good with it, and he’s got good feet. He can get himself out of situations. He really makes the game easier on you.”
That said, being paired with Doughty is a double-edged sword, especially for a rookie defenseman.
“It’s always a challenge, playing with Drew, because you’re going to play against higher level players. He’s a world-class player. He’s unbelievable. You play more minutes, and against better players, so it’s something you’ve got to be ready for.”
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