Injury could not have come at a worse time for Jake McCabe. The Buffalo Sabres defenseman had been nothing but dependable in his first five full NHL seasons, establishing himself as a solid two-way defenseman capable of shut down defense with his checking and shot-blocking as well as transitioning the puck up the ice and contributing modest offense. Entering a contract year at just 27 years old, McCabe looked prime to play a critical role again for the Sabres and then was likely to be a highly sought-after trade deadline target. That all was supposed to conclude with a considerable raise and long-term contract in free agency, from Buffalo or elsewhere.
Instead, McCabe suffered a torn ACL, MCL, and meniscus in his right knee in February, just 13 games into the season. In that small sample size, McCabe posted a Corsi For rating that held as the best possession mark on the Sabres this season. He was also on pace for a career high in hits per game. Everything was going according to plan and just like that his season was over. Not only that, but that timeline for recovery was considered six-to-eight months and history has shown that ACL injuries can take even longer to heal for hockey players. McCabe’s season was over and now the following season was in doubt. At best, McCabe will not be healthy until a month after the free agent market opens. At worst, he may not be ready to play through the first month of the season or longer.
This has completely changed the outlook of McCabe’s impending free agency. The hopes of a long-term deal are likely shattered and it will be far harder to make a case for a pay raise. In fact, many had speculated that perhaps McCabe would simply re-sign in Buffalo, the team that knows the most about his current recovery and whose lineup it would be the easiest to transition into post-injury. However, it doesn’t seem like that will be the case. Buffalo Hockey Beat’s Bill Hoppe reports that McCabe will in fact test the market when free agency opens on July 28. Hoppe writes that the Sabres have been in contact with McCabe, but haven’t prioritized an extension with the career Sabre, despite the recent losses of Rasmus Ristolainen and William Borgen from the back end. GM Kevyn Adams stated that McCabe will enter the market on his own accord though. He noted that the Sabres would welcome McCabe back if he wants to return at a fair price, but that the defenseman is “going to see what’s out there”.
McCabe’s market will certainly be an interesting one. While there are many good defensemen available, there are few great options. McCabe may have to settle for a one-year “show me” deal given his injury, but if a team believes in his ability and instead sees the injury as a way to sign the blue liner at a bargain price, perhaps he could still wind up with a multi-year deal. The Boston Bruins are one club that have been previously linked to McCabe, but there will be no shortage of teams that kick the tires on the defenseman now that it is confirmed that he is interested in testing the waters.