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by Brian Duff / Buffalo Sabres
(Photo Credit: Bill Wippert)

With his three-year, entry-level contract now in the rear view, Jake McCabe can’t wait to continue to learn, grow and succeed with the Buffalo Sabres.

McCabe’s first-time status as a restricted free agent didn’t last long, with the club signing him to a new three-year deal on the final day of June.

“We’ve got a really good young core now so it’s going to be exciting – what we can do over the next few years – so to make sure I would be a part of that is important to me,” McCabe said.

It seems like a long time ago since 2012, doesn’t it?

It was in June of that year that Buffalo drafted the Wisconsin-born defenseman after his freshman season with the Badgers. Two strong seasons would follow at the collegiate level, with World Junior gold mixed in – McCabe serving as team captain for Team USA.

Upon the completion of his junior season, McCabe got his feet wet in seven NHL games in 2013-14, before spending the bulk of 2014-15 in Rochester, and emerging as a full-time NHLer – perhaps surprisingly to some – in 2015-16.

At the end of the Sabres season, McCabe spoke of the biggest takeaway of the season: learning how to be a pro.

Consider him a quick study, as McCabe embraced the role of leader while sporting the nation’s colors again in May at the 2016 IIHF World Championship in Russia.

“It was interesting being one of the veteran guys on the team,” he said. “It was kind of cool to be relied upon in all situations and have the coaching staff have confidence in me to continue to put me out there, even if I did make a mistake.”

The 22-year old added, “I think my game kind of elevated a little bit. It kind of gave me perspective as to what kind of player I can be and what kind of role I can continue to take on.”

So when he’s not taking in Cubs games while Chicago-based for the summer, McCabe appears to be all business for next season already.

“Puck skills in general - that’s my focus. Handling a lot of pucks, trying to improve that area of my game with passing, or whatever it is skill-wise,” he said. “I need to continue to build up my strength for skating. It’s such a big part of the game now and you can always improve at that. Especially as this game continues to grow and get faster, the older I get the more crucial skating is going to be.”

As far as getting his second NHL contract signed and sealed, McCabe admitted the process did weigh on him a bit.

“For sure. I had a pretty good rookie season so I was at least hoping that I would be in their plans for the next couple of years,” he said. “So I was pretty pumped about the three-year deal.”

All this, even though he’ll be moving forward as a Sabre without his “best buddy” Mark Pysyk, who was dealt on draft day to Florida for fellow defenseman Dmitry Kulikov.

“That was a tough one,” McCabe said, fully understanding the business aspect of the game.

“He’s a great guy in the room, and probably my best buddy on the team so it’s tough to see a guy like that go, but we’ll continue to be good buddies and I’m sure he’ll do great things in Florida. It will be fun to play him here over the next few years – we play them a lot – so we’ll go at it a bit on the ice.”

And as you would expect, he’s already looking forward to what Kulikov will bring.

“He’s a big guy and a physical guy and that’s a great asset to have – is someone on the back end who can really bang bodies and be a good puck mover as well,” McCabe said. “He’s established himself as a shutdown kind of guy that can move the puck and it’s going to add a good presence to our back end for sure.”

Maturity is definitely a strong suit of McCabe’s. But thankfully, he’s not all business all the time.

Next week he’ll be crossing off a bucket list item – golfing at the legendary Pete Dye-designed Whistling Straits in his home state.

“That will be one of my highlights of the summer,” he said. “I’ve gotta get on the range a couple times this weekend. My game is not where it needs to be. But it’s going to be fun. That course is one of the best in the U.S. and I’m looking forward to it.”

Growing up, playing baseball consumed much of McCabe’s summers, but in more recent years his brother and father have become frequent members of his foursome.

Next week, he’ll be playing with his agent Dan Plante and Devils defenseman (and fellow Plante client) Andy Greene among the group.

“Last year was probably the best I ever got – about a 7 or 8 handicap. Not sniffing that these days, just trying to break 90 most times,” he said. “But Whistling Straits will be an awesome experience and I’ll just try to break 110 there!”

But his main focus remains hockey, and the evolution of this team under general manager Tim Murray.

“I think we can really do some damage because maybe some free agents will be signing with us I’m sure, because it’s a great destination in Buffalo,” McCabe said before unrestricted free agency opened up at noon on Friday. “I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to come to our team.”

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