Not every kid that grows up dreaming of playing in the NHL actually gets to see that dream come true. It takes a lot of talent in addition to hard work and dedication to the game. For those players that get into their first game, their biggest goal shifts to earning a full time spot on an NHL roster. That can be just as hard as making the NHL in the first place. It’s something you have to work at every day and can never take for granted.
A native of Davidson, Saskatchewan, Brayden McNabb is preparing to enter his third professional season. During his first season, he got into 25 games with the Buffalo Sabres. However, last season, he was unfortunately not able to get into any NHL games. Instead, he spent his season with the Sabres AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans. He takes the experience as something to learn from and knows he can improve for this season.
“Your first year you’re kind of just getting into it and feeling things out. Last year, I knew what to expect. It wasn’t my best year, I obviously wanted to be in Buffalo when the lockout was over,” McNabb said. “But, it was a great learning experience for me. The summer is a chance for me to get better each day.”
This offseason was a chance for him to continue to improve on his skills. Some skills are more important to work on than others and that was the focus for McNabb this summer. After having a taste of playing in the NHL his first season, he is eager to get back to that.
“It’s about the all around game. I want to try and improve everywhere. A lot of it definitely the skating part. That’s the one thing you really can work on during the offseason,” said McNabb. “I was in Saskatoon working with my trainer here. I’ve been working on a lot of stuff. It’s been a good summer and now I’m looking forward to camp.”
Playing his second professional season entirely in the AHL was also a good learning experience. The season started off with the NHL locked out and that meant there were players not normally in the AHL starting their seasons there.
“It’s always good whenever you can play at the highest level possible. At that time, we were doing that,” said McNabb. “I think everyone that was able to play in the American League when the lockout was on benefitted from it. I think everyone improved.”
“It was really different. There were a lot of good players in the league when the lockout was on and obviously there were still good players after too,” McNabb said. “The level of play was definitely up at the start of the season.”
While spending the season in the AHL with Rochester, McNabb also got the opportunity to participate in the All-Star game to represent his team.
“It was a cool experience. Whenever you have the chance to participate in an All-Star event, you’re extremely honored,” said McNabb. “It was a learning experience and it was something I’ll always remember.”
Not only did he get to participate in the All-Star Weekend, but he also got to take away an honor. McNabb and his Western Conference teammates narrowly defeated their Eastern Conference counterparts, scoring the game winning goal with 12 seconds left in the game. But that’s not what sticks out for McNabb.
“I won the hardest shot competition and it was pretty cool. It’s something I’ll always have with me. I kind of surprised myself with doing it. It was exciting,” McNabb said. “I guess I should start shooting the puck more instead of passing it. It’s nice to have. One of the good skills to have is a hard shot.”
Now going into his third professional season, McNabb really understands what he needs to work on and what he needs to do to earn a spot in the NHL. He knows that just because the offseason is essentially over, it’s important to work on your skills constantly. You can’t pull back.
“I think the biggest thing is being consistent and not trying to do too much out there. Every since I’ve been younger, it’s been my skating,” said McNabb. “But I feel like that has improved. It’s made pretty big gains but it’s something I always have to be working on each day.”
This coming season, he hopes to be the same kind of player that he has tried to be throughout his career. It has been the style he has played and hopes that it is the type of player the Sabres need on their roster.
“I like to think I’m a two-way defenseman. I make a good first pass out of my zone. I take care of my own end first but can chip in offensively when need be,” McNabb said.
Even though he is a couple years removed from his time in juniors now, he still remembers the time he spent in the WHL as some of the best experiences of his career so far.
“That was an exciting time. My last year, we won the WHL Championship and went to the Memorial Cup,” McNabb said. “That’s definitely something that I’ll always remember. It was one of the best experiences of my life.”
Playing in the WHL also gave him a unique advantage when transitioning into the AHL. Most junior hockey players come into the professional hockey leagues with the advantage of having a schedule similar in length. They are used to playing during the week or multiple games on the weekends. However, McNabb insists there’s another benefit to the WHL: travel.
“Nobody really knows travel like WHL players, especially where I was in Kootenay. I think the closest team was about 3 hours,” McNabb remembered. “Then the year we won and went to the Memorial Cup, the travel was ridiculous. It was 10 hours there and 10 hours back for about 3 out of the 4 series. It’s a grind and it builds character for sure.”
During his time in juniors was also when he was drafted into the NHL. The Buffalo Sabres took him in the third round of the 2009 Entry Draft. It was a very exciting time for him and it was another experience he says he will never forget. But, being from the WHL, he did not know a whole lot about the organization before being drafted.
“I didn’t know much about the team, to be honest. I came to development camp and have been there a couple years and have gone through training camps,” McNabb said about joining the Sabres organization. “I really enjoy it there and I love the city. So I’m happy to be there.”
Like many players, McNabb got to experience the Draft with his parents. Also like many players, he cannot say enough about what his parents did for him while he was growing up and following his dream of playing hockey. Where they lived, his parents had to really commit to spending a lot of time supporting him. It is something he will always be grateful for. He also likes to return the help as much as he can whenever possible.
“My parents have been there for me since day one. The travel was pretty crazy especially with us being on a farm that’s an hour away from any hockey team. They’re traveling all the time and I have to give all the credit to them,” said McNabb. “I like to help out when I can. I’ve been on the farm for 22 years now. I’m a farm boy at heart.”
Playing hockey professionally has always been a dream for McNabb and one that he was not given up on. He has worked hard to get to where he is now. He left us with some parting advice for any young hockey player that wants to follow in his shoes.
“Have fun with it and work hard. You have to do all the little things. Those little things will pay off. It’s a game and you have to enjoy it,” McNabb said.