Buffalo Sabres: Three players that will need to step up in Jake McCabe’s absence

Jake McCabe #19 of the Buffalo Sabres. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Jake McCabe #19 of the Buffalo Sabres. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

Jake McCabe is out for the year and the Buffalo Sabres need someone to step up and fill the void.

While the Buffalo Sabres beat the New Jersey Devils in a big 3-2 win on Saturday, they were dealt a huge blow when Jake McCabe left the game at 8:57 of the third period with a leg injury, and a MRI has now revealed that the defenseman has sustained injuries in his right knee to his ACL, MCL and meniscus.

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McCabe will be out for around 6-8 months and it is a huge, huge blow for the Sabres who also lost young defenseman Will Borgen for six to eight weeks with a fractured forearm that he suffered late in the same game against the Devils on Saturday, a contest the 24-year-old played pretty well in. Let’s not forget also that top-four defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen is currently out after experiencing a scary bout of COVID-19.

I’ll admit, when I first started this piece I had Borgen pencilled in as one of the three defensemen that would have to step up and help fill the void left by McCabe, but now he is also out for a considerable amount of time the Sabres are all of a sudden incredibly light on the backend, which is pretty ironic considering that for so long they always had a boatload of defensemen.

It isn’t a great situation for Buffalo who, despite beating the New Jersey Devils 4-1 on Tuesday night, still have a hell of a lot of work to do if they are to develop the consistency that will be needed to be one of the four teams to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in what is an incredibly competitive and loaded East Division.

So, with Jake McCabe out for the season and in light of Will Borgen also going down, we’ve taken a look at the three defensemen who will now need to step up and really be ready to perform to a high level on that blueline for the Buffalo Sabres…

Three players who will need to help fill the void left by Jake McCabe for the Buffalo Sabres

Rasmus Dahlin (26)
Rasmus Dahlin #26 of the Buffalo Sabres. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

1. Rasmus Dahlin

We’ll preface this by clearly stating that Rasmus Dahlin is already a key member of this blueline unit for the Buffalo Sabres and is one of their most prized assets, but he hasn’t been playing like a top-pair defenseman so far in 2020-21, and he will need to put that right in light of Jake McCabe going down with a season-ending injury.

Dahlin, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, has seven points (1 G, 6 A) in 16 games this season with a plus / minus rating of -15, while he’s averaging 21:14 of total ice time. He has no Takeaways and seven Giveaways, while his shooting percentage is at just 2.3 percent which is disappointing considering that the left-shot does boast a release that could be a real weapon from the point and on the power play.

There is no doubt that the 20-year-old has to contribute more in the offensive zone given his offensive prowess, although it is worth noting that Head Coach Ralph Krueger’s system does restrict his blueliners from jumping up and joining the rush, so you have to consider that when evaluating Dahlin’s game.

However, Dahlin should also see an increase in his minutes with McCabe out given that the latter averaged 19:11 of total ice time prior to going down hurt, and more time on the ice will give Rasmus Dahlin more opportunities to make an impact offensively for his team, in addition to playing a more solid all-round game in his own zone.

Matt Irwin (44)
Matt Irwin #44 of the Buffalo Sabres. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

2. Matt Irwin

A grizzled veteran in the National Hockey League, Matt Irwin signed a one-year, $700,000 deal with the Buffalo Sabres during the offseason and, while he was brought in to be a depth player, he could see his role substantially increase in the coming weeks in the wake of these sudden spate of injuries.

We have already started to see that take place with Irwin logging 19:47 of total ice time, including 1:47 of shorthanded ice time, against the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday night, and the 33-year-old could be leaned on more and more in what is a pretty important stretch for the Sabres if they want to have any chance of sneaking into the postseason in 2020-21.

And, while Rasmus Dahlin will likely see an increase in his minutes and be expected to do a little bit of everything, the Sabres will be looking to Matt Irwin to replace some of the grit and snarl that Jake McCabe brought to the table. After all, Irwin has 16 hits in eight games this year, along with 14 blocked shots, and he plays the same type of hard-nosed, physical game as McCabe so he could be a like-for-like replacement.

Brandon Montour (62)
Brandon Montour #62 of the Buffalo Sabres. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

3. Brandon Montour

In his latest 31 Thoughts column, which is a must-read for hockey fans by the way, Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet revealed that the Buffalo Sabres have been shopping defenseman Brandon Montour, who is an unrestricted free agent this coming offseason, but those plans might be put on hold for now.

Montour has skated in 14 games so far in 2020-21 and has recorded three points (0 G, 3 A) with a plus / minus rating of -5, while averaging 20:58 of total ice time with 16 blocked shots and 11 hits. His underlying numbers are also poor with a 47.8 Corsi Percentage, and it is fair to argue that the 26-year-old hasn’t been living up to the $3,850,000 contract he signed this past offseason.

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However, and while he isn’t the most reliable in his own zone, the talent is there and the Buffalo Sabres will need Brandon Montour to unlock that well-hidden potential and help move the puck out of the zone, help with the transition game, provide some offense from the point and help to take some of the pressure off Rasmus Dahlin who will likely have to log bigger minutes in order to help make up for some of the losses suffered by this Buffalo Sabres backend over the last week or so. And, if Brandon Montour is able to play to a high-level and help to make the Sabres at least a little bit more competitive, then that could boost his trade value come the Trade Deadline.