McCabe disappointed in the way the 2019-20 season ended

Jake McCabe
Photo credit Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig - USA TODAY Sports

Buffalo Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe remembers very clearly how things went down when the National Hockey League suspended its 2019-20 season due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"We were in Montreal, it was the night before the game, and the NBA canceled their season. Then we pretty much assumed that ours was going to be next and we were going to be on a plane the next day instead of playing at the Bell Centre, which was weird," McCabe said on Wednesday during his end-of-season press conference with the media via a Zoom conference call. "Shortly after that, it was a fluent situation. Everybody was following along on Twitter, and we were no different."

It was March 12 when the NHL officially suspended its 2019-20 regular season, and it was only announced on Wednesday that a format and tentative plan was in place for the resumption of the season. Starting up this summer, the league will hold a 24-team format that will begin the process of determining who will play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and compete for a Stanley Cup. Unfortunately for the Sabres, they finished just shy of earning a spot in the qualifying round of this format, coming in 25th place and finishing two points back of the Montreal Canadiens for the 12th and final spot.

McCabe is the Sabres' representative for the NHL Players' Association, and was as part of the discussions and negotiations revolving around the league's Return To Play initiative. The veteran defenseman knew that with time running down on the calendar for the chance to get a season finished, the league didn't have much room for error and needed to come up with a fair solution.

"It was tough navigating it because these are crazy times," McCabe said during his end-of-season press conference on Wednesday via a Zoom conference call. "Any format that we decided upon and voted upon, there's obviously going to be some push back. It's an imperfect situation and it's an imperfect format, no matter how you look at it or which way you go about it, but ultimately this is what was agreed upon. It's unfortunate that we're just going to miss out just barely, but that's the way it goes, I guess."

Now that the 2019-20 season is officially over for the Sabres, now is the time to look back on the year that was and time to reflect. 

For McCabe, that came during the times of negotiations for the 24-team Return To Play format, which then triggered the thoughts of not playing any more games this season.

"It's one of those things where, once again, it started out great and we just didn't manage our ups and downs as much as we needed to," McCabe said. "There were times that we were playing very good hockey, and then times where we went through a slump and we just couldn't seem to get out of it. I think that's just going to come with time and learning how to win in this league. If you have a bad period or a bad shift, it's just one of those things you have to shake off quicker than we have been.

"We're maturing as a group. I liked a lot of the strides a lot of guys took this year, and our coaching staff I thought did a fantastic job with us being there with Ralph [Krueger]'s first year under his belt with us. It was a really a joy to work with him, and that leaves me optimistic moving forward, especially with [head coach] Ralph [Krueger] leading the charge."

The Sabres managed to get out to a 9-2-2 start to the season in the month of October. The start of November was when the season started to feel like a rollercoaster ride with the wild stretches of games for the club.

Eventually, Buffalo got to a point where things started looking up at the NHL Trade Deadline and ended up just six points back of a top-three playoff spot in the Atlantic Division. That was the point where it all fell apart for Buffalo, eventually putting them out of a playoff picture all together.

"We had a little bit of a stretch there before we went and started that Western road trip with Winnipeg [Jets], Vegas [Golden Knights], Colorado [Avalanche] and Arizona [Coyotes], and there was no doubt in my mind that we were going to go out there, do the job and stay in the race," McCabe believed. "Unfortunately, we played some good hockey, but we didn't get the results, and that's the bottom line in this league. That belief was there with this group, which is really good to see moving forward."

As for the past season, McCabe thought that it was a stride in the right direction under the direction of Krueger. After two difficult seasons under head coach Phil Housley, where the team ended up finishing with a last place finish in 2017-18 and a 27th place finish in 2018-19, the 26-year-old blue liner felt that Krueger came in and simplified things for team, especially on the defensive side of the game.

He put [things] in very simple terms and put it in almost like a broad structure," McCabe said. "It allows us to use creativity in the offensive zone, be a little bit more structured in the neutral zone and [defensive] zone. I felt a lot more comfortable in our own end, and I didn't feel as though we were running around too much like we have in the past. That was definitely a positive. Our five-on-five play really improved, but special teams let us down this year, which is very disappointing. Penalty kill was obviously very disappointing for myself, it's kind of one of my niches. We had a good penalty kill the year before and we didn't really change anything. It's one of those things where confidence started dropping, bad breaks here and there, but I'm not worried about us getting back back on track next year because I do like our systems in place, and I know we can get the job done."

One area of Buffalo's roster that looks quite promising moving forward is on the blue line, especially with the likes of 20-year-old defensemen Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju in the mix. 

Dahlin was once again phenomenal for the Sabres on the blue line this season in his second season in the NHL as a teenager. In 59 games played this season, Dahlin had four goals and 36 assists for 40 points in 59 games. Despite missing 10 games in the season due to a concussion, Dahlin was on pace to put up 49 points (5+44) in 72 games played, which would have been a 56-point pace if he played a full 82-game schedule. Overall in his first two seasons, the young Swedish defenseman has put up 84 points (13+71) in his first 141 NHL games.

While McCabe did not spend time paired up with Dahlin on the blue line, he was able to see the growth in his game from Year 1 to Year 2 with the Sabres while still playing at an extremely young age.

"He's still so young, and it's not easy playing in this league at that age, especially as a defenseman," McCabe said. "A lot of young defensemen take a few years to really find their grips in this league, and as a 19-year-old to take the steps he did, it's really fun to see. What I love about 'Ras' the most is that he's one of the most competitive guys on the ice. Guys start hitting him or chirping at him throughout the game, but it just elevates his game to another level. He has this compete and drive that really is going to continue to take his game to the next level and the next level after that. As he continues to get bigger and stronger, it's going to be scary how high his ceiling is going to be. He's going to be a premier defenseman in this league for a long, long time."

One player that McCabe did end up playing plenty with this season was Jokiharju. The young Finnish blue liner spent the entire 2019-20 season with the Sabres in his first year with the organization after being acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks last offseason. In a complete 69-game season for Buffalo this year, Jokiharju stepped up in a big way by becoming a reliable two-way defenseman, along with four goals and 11 assists for 15 points to boot.

Aside from also seeing the growth in Jokiharju's game, McCabe also realized just how much his game became better when he stepped on to the ice with No. 10.

"Henri was awesome. To be honest, he really elevated my play once we started playing six [defensemen]," McCabe said. "To have that comfortability of being paired with him for numerous games in a row, I thought we developed a pretty good chemistry, and I thought that was my best stretch of the season. I can attribute that to him because of just how steady he is and how good of a puck mover he is and how sound he is defensively. Once again, it's just really impressive for a 20-year-old to come into this league and play the way he did. That was definitely a great pick up for us.

"I didn't know a ton about him, being a young guy in training camp, but just the strides he made from training camp to seeing how he played at the end of the year. It was really great to see. You don't see him make too many mistakes out on the ice, so it's awfully nice to play with someone like that. Between [him and Dahlin], the blue line is going to be in great shape for a long, long time."

In the meantime, the upcoming 24-team Return To Play format will be on the mind of a lot of players and fans alike around the NHL. However, McCabe and many of his teammates are focused now on the offseason and a possible return to game action for the 2020-21 season, whenever that may be. 

"It's going to be a long time without playing meaningful games until who knows when this next season is going to start," McCabe said. "I know a lot of guys are going to be chomping at the bit to get going right away, assuming that this 24-team playoff continues to go on as planned. It's going to be interesting, especially once we do get more dates involved, then we'll have a better idea. In hockey, you're so trained, especially when you get some games played in this league and seasons under your belt, you understand what your body needs in the summer time when you ramp up your training. That's going to be an important thing for us to work through with our training staff and coaches to understand when is that ramp-up time. Some guys start skating in July for the season or for training camp in September, so now what's it going to look like?... It's going to be interesting to navigate that. It's going to be an excitement going into next year. That's one thing that everyone, I think, looks forward to is working with Ralph. He brings energy to the rink every day, and it's easy to follow behind his lead."

"It's weird times, but to look back on the season, it feels ages ago now after being locked up and home for the last couple of months. It's just really frustrating, disappointing. That's all I can really categorize it as."

Also of note, McCabe recently became a father to a daughter a little more than five weeks ago. He is adjusting to life as a new dad, especially in these unique times that has allowed him to spend all the time in the world with his newborn daughter.

"It's been interesting being first-time parents amongst the pandemic," McCabe said. "My stress levels might be a little higher than normal, but I guess the one positive I do take out of being in quarantine the last couple months is my only job is to be a dad, so I'm enjoying it quite a bit. It's been nice to spend every day with her. I can't imagine having a child and having to go on a long road trip. That would be awfully tough. Me and my wife are just enjoying and trying to soak in every minute we can with her."

You can listen to McCabe's entire conference call below: