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State of the defense: Sabres missing McCabe

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As injuries have piled-up on the blue line, Jake McCabe’s value has been made even more evident in his absence

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past eight games, the state of Buffalo Sabres’ defense has been a major talking point among fans. With players like Casey Nelson, Marco Scandella, Lawrence Pilut and Jake McCabe all missing time, the blue line depth in Buffalo has certainly been tested as of late.

After what was reported as a “maintenance day” when he missed practice earlier in the week, Pilut was held out of yesterday’s contest with the Washington Capitals. As a result, fans in Western New York were forced to watch Matt Tennyson (a player who should never dress in another NHL game) take the ice for the fourth consecutive game. In just over nine minutes of ice time against the Washington, he managed to be on the ice for all three of the Capitals goals during regulation. Pilut has since been placed on injured-reserve, and his timetable to return is unknown.

To make matters even worse, the Sabres lost Nathan Beaulieu (who could very well be the most improved player on the roster this season) after he took a heavy hit along the boards from everyone’s favorite hockey villain, Tom Wilson. Beaulieu was replaced by Brendan Guhle last night as he is currently listed at day-to-day with an upper-body injury. The game marked Guhle’s first taste of NHL action this season.

If nothing else, this stretch has been another sobering reminder of just how important defensive depth is in the NHL. Deploying Tennyson is the physical representation of scratching the bottom of the barrel in that regard.

On a positive note, the team did get Scandella back in action on Saturday, but it remained clear that in order to be competitive against the league’s top offenses moving forward, the Sabres need to get healthy on the back end. Yesterday afternoon against the Boston Bruins, Matt Hunwick also returned to the lineup (supplanting Tennyson) for his first game in blue-and-gold. The 33-year-old has been sidelined since the beginning of the season with a neck injury.

Moving forward, his presence will inevitably represent at least a small improvement over the alternative. He was far from perfect on the third pairing with Guhle, but still played well enough to hopefully keep Tennyson in the AHL for good.

On December 12, it was reported that Nelson began skating again, so things are moving in the right direction, but the loss they’ve felt the most is likely the player who is furthest away from returning.

For the last nine games, the Sabres have been without arguably their best defensive defenseman in McCabe. Since he went down with a reported upper-body injury against the Tampa Bay Lighting on November 29, Buffalo has dropped five of their last eight contests. He remains on injured-reserve after initially being listed as day-to-day, and then week-to-week.

Leading up that game against Tampa Bay, McCabe was was widely considered one of the most improved players on the Sabres’ defense this season (though a strong case can be made that he performed admirably last season despite battling a shoulder injury). Either way, there is little doubt that he has been one of the team’s top-four blueliners in 2018-19.

With 10 points in 25 games, he was on pace for 33 on the year, which would have represented a career-high. While his five-on-five relative Corsi-for has seen a slight regression (albeit in a small sample size), his individual Corsi has experienced nearly a three-point improvement. Interestingly enough, his basic and individual advanced statistics have improved despite more-than a six-percent reduction in his offensive zone-start ratio from the 2017-18 campaign.

The effects of his absence have been exacerbated a bit by the other losses on the blue line. Before injuries to Scandella, Nelson, and recently Pilut had forced the defensive black-hole that is Tennyson into action, the consequences of McCabe’s placement on injured-reserve weren’t as severe (though still noticeable).

In all likelihood, his contemporaries will return to the lineup before he does, so the bleeding on the back end will stop to an extent. Regardless, when he is finally ready to return to action, his addition to the defensive corps will be extremely helpful, particularly in the defensive zone, where McCabe excels. With 44 blocked-shots this year, he ranks third on the team behind Ristolainen and Zach Bogosian.

The Sabres’ improvements in their own end have been a primary reason for their success so far this year. Injuries are inevitable, but if Buffalo hopes to be one of the top-three teams in the Atlantic Division at the end of the season, the health of their defensive corps will play a critical role. Now if only they could get consistent production from their middle-six forward group, but that’s a topic for another time.