On Brayden McNabb's Start with the Kings
The biggest question mark on the blue line now has a large enough sample of games to judge.
Brayden McNabb was acquired by the Kings (along with two second round draft picks) from the Buffalo Sabres for Hudson Fasching and Nic Deslauriers. Though Fasching had made a splash among Kings fans after being drafted, the Kings opted for a (close to) NHL-ready product in the 23-year old defenseman.
With Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene both needing contracts at the time, it became apparent in a hurry that McNabb was in the Kings' cards for the 2014/15 season. Adding to that, he would have had to pass through waivers to be sent to Manchester, and it is unlikely that he would have cleared. After an injury sidelined Jake Muzzin to begin the season, McNabb was foisted into the opening night lineup.
The fan reaction to McNabb has been mixed. Unlike Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov, and Jake Muzzin before him, there haven't been visible, obvious returns on the Kings' investment to this point. At least, there hadn't been until he set up one of the most unlikely goals any of us (including Matt Greene) has ever seen.
Still, though, McNabb's play has left fans puzzled and even disappointed as far as I can tell. While he hasn't been the worst King on the ice this season, his play has left fans wanting. Pretty much the only noteworthy aspect of his skillset to this point has been his physical play.
So what is there to make of his play? What can we gleam out of the numbers?
As always, context is important. How is he being used? Where is he starting his shifts? Who is he playing against? Most importantly, who is he playing with?
For starters, he's getting the easiest zone starts among defensemen on the team and the 4th easiest overall. Though the Kings are off to a sluggish start in this regard on the whole (48.61% offensive zone starts compared to 53.62% a season ago), this doesn't take away from the fact that McNabb's zone starts have been substantially easier than the rest of the team's.
McNabb has also faced pedestrian competition. His opposition is posting a 49.84 raw corsi percentage. Obviously 50% is the break-even mark, so Brayden's competition is, simply put, average.
So far, nothing jumps out as a true suppressor in McNabb's usage. He's received easy zone starts and average competition. We'd probably expect his corsi numbers to be well above average, especially given the fact that he's playing for the Kings, a notoriously strong possession team.
However, we have one more thing to look at, and it's probably the most important context to put possession numbers in.
Quality of Teammates
Brayden McNabb is not playing with very good teammates. His teammates have combined to post just about a 50% corsi for the season. While that sounds well and good, remember again that the Kings are supposed to be an excellent possession team and have talented players up and down their lineup for the most part. Those numbers are also skewed by minutes he played in the early-going with Drew Doughty -- minutes he will no longer receive since Jake Muzzin is back in the lineup. That latter fact may actually be to his benefit
McNabb's WOWYs may actually be an interesting study in the effect of competition over small samples. We know the kinds of minutes that Drew Doughty plays. Those minutes are usually among the hardest minutes on the team. Though he usually gets a zone start push, he faces the toughest players that the other team has to offer. For a player just getting his feet wet in this league, that's a tall task. As such, McNabb struggled with Doughty. The pairing combined to post a rather poor 49.7% corsi. Since McNabb left Doughty's hip, he's posted a 52.7% corsi.
His most frequent d-partner since falling off the first pairing has been Matt Greene. The two have combined to post a formidable depth pairing, notching a respectable 52.3% corsi in their time together. Nothing earth shattering, and certainly not the work of past third pairings (like, say, ones with Alec Martinez and Greene or Willie Mitchell), but acceptable.
Where McNabb has perhaps been hurt the most is in Sutter's decision to play him behind Jarret Stoll. The Kings' third/fourth line center has had an abysmal start to the season and has dragged down the numbers of all his teammates in the process. While on the ice together, Stoll and McNabb have put up a downright terrible 45.9% corsi. Among teammates he has a reasonable sample of ice time with, that is by far McNabb's worst performance. When he's away from Stoll, his corsi vaults up to 54%.
Overall, McNabb has seen a rather interesting dynamic in the effect he has on his teammates. When he plays with players you'd consider top end, players that play against elite competition (Drew Doughty and That 70's Line in particular), he seems to struggle. When he plays with players that have received minutes against weaker competition (Justin Williams, Dustin Brown, Matt Greene), he's tended to fare much better.
As common sense as that seems, I think it puts a positive spin on his development. Though it's worth noting that you have to take small sample-WOWYs with a huge grain of salt, his numbers tell the story of an inexperienced but talented player getting his feet wet in this league. The stronger competition overwhelms him but when the game slows down a bit, he experiences much more success. And, it's worth repeating at length, he succeeds when he doesn't play with Jarret Stoll, which seems to be crucial to the team on a general level.
Brayden McNabb's first 20 games, though widely criticized, have been perfectly acceptable. He did have a very sluggish start and hasn't yet been able to throttle the competition even in simple minutes, but he's held his own by posting a 51.4% corsi overall. Given the fact that he has faced pretty soft minutes alongside some merely decent teammates, it's about what you'd think is right. I suspect that if we and the Kings are patient with McNabb, we'll eventually see a pretty decent player emerge.