So much of the Memorial Cup can turn on the fate of a single game, so when the Western League’s Kootenay Ice lost captain Brayden McNabb to suspension for a round-robin game against Mississauga, it seemed like a death knell for the upstart squad. The big defenseman had been booted from an opening loss to Owen Sound for elbowing Attack star Joey Hishon. Not only would the Ice be without their leader for the second game of the tournament (which Mississauga won), but the major penalty against McNabb broke open the first game for the Attack.
But a win over Saint John in the final round-robin game gave Kootenay life and McNabb, a third round pick (66th overall) of the Buffalo Sabres in 2009, played a crucial role in the showdown with two assists in the 5-4 overtime victory. Being only a spectator for the Mississauga game served as a lesson learned for the youngster.
“It’s really hard to watch, especially under suspension,” he said. “But I thought the boys played really well and they deserved a different fate in that game.”
At 6-foot-4, 218 pounds, McNabb already has NHL size and his physical game is impressive. The Davidson, Sask., native’s most deadly defensive move is a rear-facing homing missile hit that evokes Bryan McCabe’s halcyon days in Toronto. But apart from punishing opponents along the boards and in open ice, McNabb has a variety of skills.
“I like to take care of my own end first, make that good first pass,” he said. “If I can jump up into the play and make offense I will.”
For teammates, there’s also the matter of McNabb’s prowess on special teams that makes him a forceful weapon in the Kootenay arsenal.
“He’s so steady back there,” said center Max Reinhart. “He makes our power play 100 times better, just with him being able to control it.”
The Sabres No. 5 prospect according to The Hockey News’ Future Watch 2011, McNabb is excited to be part of an organization that has gathered renewed hope lately thanks to new owner Terry Pegula. And the Sabres should be excited about McNabb. During the regular season he was stellar, putting up 72 points in 59 games. But it was in the playoffs, where the Ice stunned the WHL competition, when he really took off. The 20-year-old posted 27 points in 19 games as Kootenay bested Brayden Schenn’s Saskatoon Blades and Ryan Johansen’s crew from Portland en route to the league title and subsequent Memorial Cup berth.
“We faced a little adversity in the first round against Moose Jaw and we battled through that,” McNabb said. “Everyone is playing their roles. When you’ve got 22 guys who all want to win, it’s pretty special.”
With its early Memorial Cup stumbles, Kootenay looked as though it would be ousted quickly. But when the Ice lined up against a Saint John team that had already been guaranteed a spot in the final and was coming off an overtime game the night before, they took full advantage of a team resting its players. Now, the boys from the ‘Dub’ will get another crack at Owen Sound in the tiebreaker game, with the winner facing Mississauga in the semifinal. And once again, the Ice will have captain McNabb at the helm.
“He leads by example,” Reinhart said.” He’s always calm with the puck, he’s never panicking – he just makes good, smart plays and he has a nice calmness to him that rubs off on everyone.”
With the Memorial Cup still in reach, the boys from Kootenay will need that stabilizing force.
THN.com’s Prospect Watch focuses on up-and-comers from the AHL, Europe, major junior, the NCAA and even minor hockey destined to become big names in the NHL.
For more great prospect profiles and news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.