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Knights’ ‘unsung hero’ piles up points during strong start

Brayden McNabb knows his role on the Golden Knights.

The stalwart veteran isn’t there to stand out. He isn’t supposed to end up on too many highlight reels. He’s even willing to admit his defensive partner, Shea Theodore, is the one that carries their pair.

“I’m just there to help out,” McNabb said.

But the strangest thing keeps happening in the 32-year-old’s 12th NHL season. McNabb keeps finding himself on the receiving end of points and high-fives from grateful teammates he just set up for a goal.

One of the many interesting nuggets from the Knights’ 11-1-1 start is that McNabb has seven assists through 13 games. He had 16 helpers all of last season.

It’s not something the Knights were counting on getting from one of their veteran defensemen to start their title defense. But they’ll sure take it.

“He does not have to bring a lot of that for us to be successful,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “But when every player brings a little bit more other than their strength, that’s when you know you have something good.”

Offense wasn’t always a secondary piece to McNabb’s game.

He had 72 points in 59 games in his final season of junior hockey with the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice. He had 102 points in 159 games during parts of four years in the American Hockey League. McNabb might not have a booming shot, but his vision and hockey IQ made him productive.

Things changed when he got to the NHL. McNabb leaned into different strengths to stick around. He became a tough, physical, shot-blocking menace opponents didn’t want to mess with.

It worked out. McNabb has 140 points in 671 NHL games. But he’s made the playoffs six times, won a Stanley Cup and caused opponents to quiver every time they see him lining up a hip check in the neutral zone. Plus, his offensive tools are still apparent.

“It’s there, right?” said captain Mark Stone, who believes McNabb was one of the WHL’s best offensive defensemen when they both were playing there. “He just kind of accepted a role of being a big, bruising defenseman, but his ability and smarts are there.”

McNabb has shown those things off a little more often to start this season.

His latest trick was a magnificent pass to Stone on Saturday against the Colorado Avalanche. McNabb faked a point shot on the penalty kill to draw the defense’s attention, then fired the puck to his teammate on the other side of the crease.

He’s also made a number of sharp passes to get the Knights going in transition. He got the team headed north when it scored 13 seconds into the third period in a 5-3 win against the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 21.

McNabb has done all that while still staying true to the foundation of his game. A few extra assists haven’t stopped him from blocking a team-leading 38 shots this season, tied for the second-highest total in the NHL.

The Knights are plus-8 with him on the ice at five-on-five, a testament to his ability to take care of business at both ends of the rink. Only seven players — two of them teammates in center William Karlsson and right wing Michael Amadio — have higher ratings.

Those kind of stats aren’t going to help McNabb blend into the background much longer. He’s played a key role in the Knights’ success for years. This season, his contributions are being put in the spotlight more often.

“He’s kind of an unsung hero for us,” Stone said. “He’s made a lot of great plays for us this year.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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