Jake McCabe knows that at the very least he’ll compete for a roster spot in Buffalo. The best-case scenario has the 21-year-old defenseman starting on the Sabres’ blue line next season.
“I can’t say exactly where I’ll fit in, but I’m hoping to play my best hockey I’ve played and show the coaching staff that I am ready to play at that next level,” McCabe said in First Niagara Center. “I’ve obviously played a few games at that level, and I think I fit in and can play at that NHL level and play against the top players in the world. I’m hoping to prove that in camp.”
The Sabres’ blue line will be crowded in the fall, but there’s certainly opportunity. Based on organizational standing and contract situations, the inside track belongs to Zach Bogosian, Josh Gorges, Rasmus Ristolainen, Mike Weber, Chad Ruhwedel, Mark Pysyk and Carlo Colaiacovo. Matt Donovan and McCabe will need stellar training camps to break into the top seven or force the team to carry eight.
“There’s a lot of opportunity to make it to the next level for the Buffalo Sabres,” McCabe said. “It’s an exciting time to be in the Buffalo Sabres’ organization, and I couldn’t be happier with the spot I’m in.”
McCabe is one three prospects in development camp with NHL experience, joining center Sam Reinhart and goaltender Andrey Makarov. The defenseman played seven games in 2013-14 after leaving the University of Wisconsin and two more in February.
He looked like a pro during Friday night’s prospect scrimmage, picking up two assists. Sabres coach Dan Bylsma called McCabe one of the three best players in the game.
“It’s nice to give first impressions,” McCabe said, “but then again training camp is the real test. That’s when you’re going against real men and that’s when you’re competing for jobs.”
The scrimmage continued an upward trend for McCabe. He played 57 games in Rochester, finishing second among defensemen to Ruhwedel with five goals, 24 assists and 29 points.
“At the start of the year, I had some inconsistencies, just like any other rookie would have, especially defensemen transitioning to the pro game,” McCabe said. “I just couldn’t really put three games together probably until Christmas. Then I finally kind of caught my stride and played with confidence.
“I definitely improved as a hockey player last year, and that’s all you can really ask for in your rookie year.”
McCabe’s lowlight was a concussion that forced him to miss nearly all of March.
“You want to rush back as soon as you can and help out your teammates and play the game you love, but really it’s a scary, scary injury,” he said. “It was gruesome. With the studies they have out now and how seriously it can affect you later in life, you really have to take your time with those injuries. Knock on wood, hopefully it never happens again because it wasn’t fun.”
McCabe, drafted in the second round in 2012, is in his fourth development camp. Nothing against the guys he’s with, but he hopes it’s his last. He wants to be a full-fledged NHL player.
“This being my fourth year at the development camp, I’m looking at the roster and don’t know many names,” he said. “It’s kind of weird being the old guy here. Not too long ago, I remember being here my first year and going up against guys that have played NHL games and are fighting for spots to make the Sabres.
“There’s a lot of new faces, and it’s going to be a lot of competition at camp.”
In a nod of appreciation to his family, Jack Eichel is sticking with the jersey number he wore at the NHL Draft.
The Sabres’ star-in-waiting has decided to he’ll go with No. 15 in the NHL. With his usual No. 9 on the back of Evander Kane and fallback No. 11 in the rafters for Gilbert Perreault, Eichel had been weighing what to wear.
“It’s a number my sister has worn, my dad has worn and I’ve worn before,” Eichel said Friday. “It’s their lucky numbers. It happened to be the year I got drafted. I like the number and I think it would be really nice to wear it if the opportunity presents itself to be on the Sabres next year.”
The Sabres have just their third goaltending coach since 1999. Bylsma has hired Andrew Allen to replace Arturs Irbe, who spent one season on the job after taking over for Jim Corsi.
Allen spent the past four seasons as the developmental goalie coach for the Chicago Blackhawks, working with the team’s minor-league netminders. The 38-year-old has also served as the goalie coach for St. Lawrence University.
The University of Vermont product played parts of five seasons in the ECHL and American Hockey League.
While McCabe is a development camp veteran, he’s not even close to being the oldest player. That distinction belongs to forward Matt Garbowsky, who turns 25 this month. Garbowsky joined the Amerks at the end of last season after a four-year career at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
“I’m happy to be here and happy to be given this opportunity,” he said. “I’m just trying to run with it.”