A look at the Golden Knights’ playoff unsung hero, and why he is so valuable

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DALLAS — Brayden McNabb is comfortable outside of the spotlight.

The Golden Knights defenseman grew up on a 7,000-acre grain farm in Saskatchewan. The closest town was Davidson, with a population of only 1,025, and even that was 15 miles down the road from the McNabb farm.

He learned to play hockey on a small town rink in a village called Girvin. That rink collapsed years later, and Girvin lost its status as a village when its population dipped below 20.

Now, McNabb is a 12-year NHL vet, and one of the original Golden Misfits chosen by Vegas in the 2017 expansion draft. He’s a Stanley Cup champion, and his 9,895 minutes of ice time are the most of any player in franchise history, and yet finding a No. 3 McNabb jersey in or around T-Mobile Arena is a rare sight.

That’s because his best work on the ice is done in the trenches. On his best nights, he can go unnoticed on the broadcast because McNabb is in the business of stifling offensive plays, not creating them. For all of those reasons, McNabb is one of the most under-appreciated players in the league.

“Everyone likes the goal-scorers,” said Vegas forward William Carrier, “but at the end of the day, people like to win, and players like Nabber are what you need in your locker room to win. It’s been like that since Year 1.”

McNabb has been one of the most stabilizing players over all seven seasons in Vegas, including in this first-round playoff series against the Dallas Stars. He’s reliable in front of the net, plays the toughest minutes every night and rarely misses games. He brings the same, consistent presence night after night, which is why he’s become the de facto mentor for every young defenseman that has entered the organization.

Zach Whitecloud, Nicolas Hague, Kaedan Korczak and just about every other green blueliner has begun their Golden Knights career paired with McNabb. His calming presence and excellent communication skills make him perfectly suited to help ease players into NHL action. When he’s not helping a rookie, McNabb is usually paired with Shea Theodore, serving as the stay-at-home defender to allow Theodore to make more aggressive offensive plays.

“He’s just steady,” said Theodore, who has played more than 3,570 minutes of ice time with McNabb over the last seven years. “He’s a physical presence. He talks well on the ice, and obviously that allows me to jump up into the play. For a long time, he’s been that steady presence, so it’s good to have.”

This season, at 33 years old, McNabb has been more than that. He set a new career-high with 26 points in the regular season, jumping into the offensive attack more than in years past. That offensive bump continued early in the playoffs, as McNabb had two goals and two assists through four games heading into Game 5 on Wednesday. Entering Tuesday, the defensive stalwart was tied with players such as Cale Makar, Drew Doughty and Josh Morrissey for the most goals by a defenseman. That’s obviously over an incredibly small sample, but it’s the type of company a player like McNabb doesn’t usually keep.

“He’s usually the stay-at-home defenseman for us, but right now, he’s scoring,” Carrier said with a smile. “We need to tell Theo to stay back and play defenseman!”

McNabb scored a gorgeous goal in Game 3, skating around a man at the point before pivoting to his forehand and firing a perfectly placed wrist shot into the top corner of the net.

“He’s deferring to Theo a lot of nights because Theo is a natural, but Nabber has it in him,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “He can certainly do it. You’ve seen some nice goals from him, where they’re not just shots from the point that ricochet in off everybody. He’s typically on the weak side. His timing is good when he’s going downhill, and he gets some good looks.”

Chipping in offensively may be rare for McNabb, but it wasn’t always. He was an excellent offensive defenseman growing up, and scored plenty of goals for the Kootenay Ice in the Western Hockey League. He put up 213 points in 297 WHL games (0.72 points per game). In his final year of junior hockey, as the captain of the Ice, McNabb had 21 goals and 72 points in only 59 games (1.22 per game). In his final playoff run, in 2011, he had 27 points in 19 games (1.42).

“He has good instincts,” Cassidy said. “You go back to his junior numbers, and he had big numbers. Sometimes, you just have to find your way and find an identity to play. You see a lot of guys like that at the NHL level. Usually it’s third- or fourth-line forwards. Some of them have to play a little more direct.”

McNabb realized quickly that he wasn’t going to make an NHL career by scoring goals, and developed into more of a stay-at-home defenseman. He perfected one of the most powerful hip checks in the league, and uses his 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame to patrol the net front with ferocity.

“He’s probably one of the more underrated all-around defensemen in the league,” Cassidy said. “I think a lot of our guys got credit last year, rightly so after winning the Cup, and he certainly fits into that category.

“I think every team would like to have that type of player in their lineup — a guy who can give you offense and finish some plays. He’s a big shot-blocker, a physical presence, and he doesn’t need power-play time, so all of his points are typically five-on-five.”

Since McNabb came to Vegas in 2017, he’s among the league leaders in both of the pain-inducing stats. He leads the NHL in that span with 1,108 blocks in the regular season, and is third in the league with 197 blocks in the playoffs. He’s also seventh in the regular season with 1,228 hits over that span, and leads all defensemen with 261 hits in the playoffs.

Those gaudy block numbers are a result of McNabb’s role. He regularly plays the toughest minutes, with 1,298 minutes of short-handed ice time in the regular season since 2017 — 457 more than any other Golden Knight. Only Esa Lindell and Ryan McDonagh have played more time short-handed in the postseason during that span.

“He’s been playing it the right way forever,” Carrier said. “He blocks shots. He has a good stick and great gaps. He’s physical, as we’ve seen in the past. He doesn’t chase the hit though, and makes smart plays.”

On Monday night in Vegas, McNabb opened Game 4 with a booming hit that sent Dallas forward Logan Stankoven flipping into the air. Seconds later, Stars captain Jamie Benn returned the favor with a crushing hit on McNabb. He popped up, and made a nice play to earn the assist on Vegas’ first goal of the game.

When McNabb contributes offensively, there’s a noticeable pop on the bench from his teammates.

McNabb doesn’t seek the glory, but he’s found it more often than he’s used to in these playoffs. With several of Vegas’ top players in a bit of a scoring drought at the moment, amid consecutive home losses to the Stars, his hot streak couldn’t have come at a better time.

“Obviously he’s a great player,” Theodore said. “We’ve been playing together for awhile, and it seems like he’s got the touch right now, so we’re going to keep feeding him. It gets the boys going. It’s good to see the excitement.”

(Photo of Brayden McNabb : David Becker / NHLI via Getty Images)

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