It’s a reality in college hockey and has become a forgone conclusion for Wisconsin: At least one player will give up his remaining eligibility to take a shot at the NHL at the end of this season. This year it was junior Jake McCabe’s turn.
With already nine seniors that will graduate from this year’s Badger squad, McCabe compounded the mass exodus when he signed a three-year entry level draft contract with the Buffalo Sabres, which was announced Thursday afternoon.
Joe Faust, one of the nine seniors and McCabe’s defensive partner for most of this past season, said that despite the fact McCabe had a final year left of eligibility, the decision to leave early hardly caught Faust by surprise.
“Obviously all of us growing up playing hockey that’s a dream to play college, but to play in the NHL it’s certainly a huge dream too,” Faust said. “I couldn’t be more happy that he has this opportunity. I think he deserves it. He’s worked hard. He’s a very good hockey player.”
With McCabe’s departure, a Wisconsin player has left early from the program in each of the last nine seasons. He follows in the footsteps of former Badger players now in the NHL like Joe Pavelski (2006), Derek Stepan (2010) and Ryan McDonagh (2010). Like McDonagh, McCabe joins a long legacy of blue liners in the NHL who formerly wore the Cardinal and White of Wisconsin.
Speaking directly to that legacy, McCabe will actually join former Badger Jamie McBain on the Buffalo blue line.
Although McCabe, who played in exactly 100 career games for UW, came in as a highly touted recruit as the 44th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, he has since developed in the tradition of the Badger hockey program.
“I think it just goes to show how well they develop their players here [at Wisconsin],” Faust said. “That starts with the coaching staff and it carries on to our strength coach Jim Schneider. With the teams that we have and the amount of skilled guys that helps as well. You get to play on good teams and that just goes to show that we are one of the premier programs.”
McCabe is expected to make his NHL debut almost immediately when the Sabres take to the road to play against the St. Louis Blues Thursday, less than a week since he played his last college game. Wisconsin’s season ended in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last Friday against North Dakota as McCabe finished the year with 25 points, second to Frankie Simonelli for most by a Badger defenseman.
In his career, McCabe tallied 58 points on 14 goals and 44 assists, but as an assistant captain this year, his value extends much more beyond his offensive production and, according to Faust, his leadership will certainly be missed next season.
But for a player with a skill set as balanced as McCabe’s, the decision was bound to happen at some point.
“His hockey sense is just as good as just about anyone else’s. I think he moves the puck really well. He’s a good skater. Those are some of his biggest attributes. He’s a very strong guy. He’s not afraid to be physical and he’s a really tough competitor and he puts that whole package together. That’s what makes him a good player,” Faust said.
Although McCabe was not available for comment, he posted on his Twitter account Wednesday afternoon as he prepared to join his new team.
“Thank you everyone for the overwhelming support! Want to also thank UW for the best 3 years of my life, very excited for this opportunity!”
McCabe was the first player this season with eligibility left to sign a pro contract, but joins seniors Michael Mersch and Tyler Barnes, who have also signed pro deals. However, McCabe will be the only one playing in the NHL.