EL SEGUNDO, CA — Last season, young defenseman Brayden McNabb got off to a somewhat rocky start to his second full season in the National Hockey League. In fact, he was a healthy scratch for the Los Angeles Kings in their season opener against the San Jose Sharks (5-1 loss) due to what head coach Darryl Sutter characterized as a “rough training camp.” The now-25-year-old, 6-4, 212-pound native of Davidson, Saskatchewan didn’t score his first goal that season until December 6, 2015, a 3-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
What a difference a year makes.
After dedicating himself to improving all facets of his game during over the summer, McNabb has already scored two goals and appears to be an improved player this season, even though it’s still very early, just six games into the Kings’ 2016-17 season.
“It’s been going pretty well, so far,” he said. “There’s a couple of areas in the games where I need to be a little bit better—everyone’s trying to get a little better. But it’s consistency and trying keep my level of play up.”
“It’s little things—on the rush, stick position, lining up with players down low, being stronger down low,” he added. “Those are areas of the game that I’m always going to have to work at and I’ll continue to do so.”
Indeed, improving on all the little things he mentioned are showing up in McNabb’s game, as he has been quite consistent at being in good defensive position, making a good, quick first pass to start breakout plays, and just making good decisions, overall.
McNabb chalked that up to experience, primarily.
“It’s like any player,” he noted. “The longer you play in the league, you gain experience. I think experience is huge. It’s just another year knowing who you’re playing against and their tendencies. That’s the biggest thing for me—experience. That, and the off-ice stuff that I worked on and will continue to do will definitely help me going forward.”
Actually, the “stuff” he worked on over the summer was on the ice, too.
“It was my skating, mainly,” said McNabb. “That was definitely the priority over the summer. I worked with [skating coach] Dave Cruikshank. I put in a lot of work with him over the summer. For me, I think it’s helped.”
McNabb took about six weeks off after last season, returning to his hometown. But he returned to the Los Angeles area for the rest of the summer to work on his skating and skills, along with spending time in the gym.
“I feel stronger and more powerful—I did a lot of work with [strength and conditioning coach [Matt Price],” he said. “He’s helped me. It was a good summer. I made good progress, but the thing now is staying with it and keep building off it.”
Never one to shy away from the big hit, McNabb has already recorded two this season. More significantly, he has done so without being risky, putting himself out of good defensive position.
“That goes back to the experience part,” McNabb observed. “I was kind of young and reckless when I first came in. I gave up more than I should have with the hits. As you grow as a player, you learn when and when not to step up and when the right time is. That’s something I’ve been learning and will continue to do.”
McNabb’s current defensive partner also noted his improvement.
“His positioning in the defensive zone is better,” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “He’s making plays when the other team is on the forecheck—that’s better. He got a little stronger, too. That always helps. He does a lot of work, watching video, and stuff like that, to help improve his game. He’s done a good job at that.”
Doughty also pointed to experience as playing a key role in McNabb’s improved play.
“[Experience is a major factor in his improvement], for sure,” he noted. “It’s probably the number one factor. I know for me, coming in, every year, with another year of experience, I got more and more comfortable every season. I’m sure the same thing is happening for him. It’s showing up in his play.”
“He’s got more games in him,” he added. “He’s more confident in his game. He has more experience and he’s just getting better. He worked really hard in the off-season to make all aspects of his game better. He’s playing well.”
As a young defenseman, McNabb’s mistakes over the last two seasons were a source of angst, to put it mildly, for many. But Doughty pointed to the development of defenseman Jake Muzzin, who generated the same kind of angst in his first two full seasons with the Kings. But now, after three full seasons in the NHL, Muzzin was good enough to represent Canada in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
In fact, Doughty added that he went through similar development pains, too, even though he was more talented when he started in the NHL, coming straight out of major junior hockey at the age of 18.
“[McNabb is] going through the same stuff I went through, just at a different age,” Doughty stressed. “Like I said, you get more comfortable, you get more confident with each game. You’re no longer afraid to make mistakes and if you do make a mistake, you toss it out the window right away and get back to playing.”
“He’s done a good job of that so far this season,” Doughty added. “He’s just improving and we need him to be a really good player for us to be successful. Every year, Nabber’s been improving, getting better and becoming a bigger part of our team.”
As Doughty pointed out, if a player is afraid to make mistakes, they are doomed to failure.
“[Young] players are going to make mistakes,” he said. “That’s part of being a rookie in this league. You’re going to make mistakes, but you have to put everything aside and not listen to what people are saying. You have to focus on your own game and not be afraid to make mistakes. If you make a mistake, you have go out there for the next shift like nothing happened.”
“If you’re afraid to make mistakes, you’re just going to chip pucks off the wall or just clear them out of the zone,” he added. “You’re not going to give your team any possession that way, so you’ve got to be willing to try to make plays. You don’t have to be dangerous with it, but you’ve got to be willing to make plays when they’re there. You can’t do that if you’re afraid to make mistakes.”
Despite what his Norris Trophy-winning defenseman has observed, Sutter wasn’t about to praise McNabb, at least, not yet.
“We have to see [improvement] over a period of time,” he said. “We’re not evaluating our defensemen on—[six games is] a very small sample size.”
“Quite honest, I’m not getting into that,” he added. “You guys [the local media] have asked about our defensemen, but I’m not getting into the individual part of it at all. Until our goals against gets to where it’s got to be, we’re going to say that our defenseman all have to be a lot better.”
“Our defense is improving. [But] it’s not about Drew Doughty or Brayden McNabb. It’s about the group of them.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings defenseman Brayden McNabb, shown here during practice at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California. >Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography.
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