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2016-17 in Review: Is LA okay if Brayden McNabb goes to Vegas?

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A Halloween injury has derailed the heavy-hitting defenseman, possibly onto a different track for the NHL’s newest team.

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Vancouver Canucks Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

For the next month or two, we’ll be taking a look at the players who made the Los Angeles Kings’ 2016-17 season what it was: a crushing disappointment that got people fired an up-and-down journey which managed to be both unusual and familiar. Rather than the good-bad-future-grade format we’ve used in past seasons, we’ll ask a crucial question and answer it using it what we saw this year.

Is LA okay if Brayden McNabb goes to Vegas?

The 2014 trade deadline was a blockbuster for the Kings. Not only did they trade the disappointing Matt Frattin to the Columbus Blue Jackets for a proven scorer in Marian Gaborik, but the Kings also traded an offensive prospect to the Buffalo Sabres for Brayden McNabb. It would be the apex of Dean Lombardi’s management, as the Kings would go on to win their second Stanley Cup in three years—a storybook ending to a dream season. (And yes, I believe the overtime goal scored by Alec Martinez is the #1B best moment in LA sports history, equal to Kirk Gibson’s home run in 1988 which is #1A. There, I said it.)

McNabb was seen by Lombardi as the great white hope to shore up the Kings defense. At 6’4, 212 pounds, he was considered a physical defenseman who Lombardi believed had a shot at playing in the Kings’ top four. He was even seen as overaggressive with his play, but Lombardi was willing to be patient with that, and it leads to entertaining hits as seen here:

Over the last three seasons, McNabb’s Corsi For% has increased from 57.0% to 60.3%. At 60.3%, McNabb had the highest Corsi For% among Kings defensemen in 2016-17, even beating that of Jake Muzzin (55.7%), a player with a reputation for high Corsi numbers. (Muzzin’s Corsi For% has declined over the last three seasons from 58.1%.) Perhaps this explains the high opinion that Lombardi, whose grinding, puck-possession system has come under the microscope, has for McNabb.

Unfortunately, the Kings exemplified the flaw of Corsi in 2016-17, heavily outshooting their opponents but still losing and missing the playoffs. It follows that McNabb’s 2016-17 performance cannot be evaluated based on his high Corsi. Let’s take a look at his career stats:

McNabb NHL career statistics

Season Age Team GP G A PTS +/- PIM Shots Shot % Avg ice time HIT BLK Takeaways Giveaways
Season Age Team GP G A PTS +/- PIM Shots Shot % Avg ice time HIT BLK Takeaways Giveaways
2011-12 21 BUF 25 1 7 8 -1 15 23 4.3 17:50 49 30 16 9
2013-14 23 BUF 12 0 0 0 1 6 10 0 17:14 25 12 2 5
2014-15 24 LAK 71 2 22 24 11 52 74 2.7 15:54 175 56 12 45
2015-16 25 LAK 81 2 12 14 11 92 91 2.2 18:49 206 95 19 56
2016-17 26 LAK 49 2 2 4 1 54 47 4.3 15:04 110 54 10 32
Career 238 7 43 50 23 219 245 2.9 16:59 565 247 59 147
Source: hockey-reference.com

Let’s also take another look at our normalized stats for the Kings D-men:

Normalized data for Kings defensemen, 82 games and ~20 minutes per game

Player Age GP G A PTS +/- PIM Shots Shot% Avg ice time BLK HIT
Player Age GP G A PTS +/- PIM Shots Shot% Avg ice time BLK HIT
Kevin Gravel 24 82 2.4 14.3 16.7 7.2 14 124 1.9 20:00 155 175
Brayden McNabb 26 82 4.5 4.5 8.9 2.2 120 105 4.3 20:00 129 263
Paul Ladue 24 82 0.0 38.5 38.5 -24.0 19 130 0.0 20:00 63 82
Alec Martinez 29 82 9 30 39 -17 24 144 6.3 21:38 167 137
Jake Muzzin 27 82 9 19 28 -21 46 184 4.9 22:18 122 162
Derek Forbort 24 82 2 16 18 8 54 100 2 20:07 159 180
Drew Doughty 27 82 8.8 23.6 32.4 5.9 34 133 6.6 20:00 80 95
Source: hockey-reference.com

What’s clear is that McNabb has declined in 2016-17. Even when normalizing for 20 minutes a game and 82 games, McNabb only gets 4.5 goals and 4.5 assists, a far cry from two seasons prior when he scored 22 assists in 71 games. McNabb also had a normalized +2 in 2016-17, a far cry from the +11 in his two previous seasons.

Although he had 120 normalized PIM, McNabb failed the eye test in 2016-17. He looked slow, lost, and incompetent on defense after returning from a collarbone injury that sidelined him for 27 games. For 2016-17 McNabb was projected to replace Luke Schenn, an older player with a big-body skill set, but unfortunately, he resembled Schenn’s slowness and inability to adapt during the 2016 playoffs. McNabb not only appeared slow, but also appeared small on the ice, as if an impostor wore his jersey and struggled to keep up. His defense was below NHL quality—whenever he touched the puck, giveaways were imminent. To make matters worse, he has now compiled an injury history—along with his collarbone injury, he suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2013.

This is not to say that McNabb cannot enjoy a long career in the NHL. He can, as many teams can use his big-hitting, physical skill set. McNabb is still young and the odds of a bounceback are good. But with new coaching and management, and the constant rhetoric about today’s speedier NHL, chances are that the Kings will not value big, physical, Corsi types as highly.

All this allows us to answer the question, is LA okay if McNabb goes to Vegas? It is axiomatic that the Kings will protect Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli, and Tanner Pearson. The Kings will also protect Drew Doughty, Martinez, and Muzzin (assuming the latter two aren’t trade bait). This leaves one last protected spot if LA chooses to protect four defensemen. If Martinez and/or Muzzin are traded, then clearly McNabb stays. But if not, then the issue becomes whether the Kings prioritize Derek Forbort or McNabb.

My answer? The Kings should prioritize Forbort. This is due to the material I discussed above and in my previous article: Forbort’s rise in 2016-17 and ability to play alongside Doughty, combined with McNabb’s decline in 2016-17, slow speed, and injury history.

Granted, McNabb’s departure would make it imperative for the Kings to find a seventh defenseman as backup. However, with Lombardi’s departure, McNabb is no longer part of the long-term plans of the Kings, and the Kings should not sacrifice the continued development of Kevin Gravel or Paul LaDue to leave a roster spot open for him.