Buffalo Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe returned to Buffalo and is scheduled to undergo an MRI on Sunday, coach Ralph Krueger announced following the team's practice in New Jersey.
McCabe sustained a lower-body injury during the third period of the Sabres' win over the Devils on Saturday.
"I'll best honest with you, not very optimistic about the diagnosis that'll come out of this, but let the medical team take a look at it and we'll give you a full report," Krueger said. "The lower-body injury is serious."
The loss of McCabe would add another hole to the top of a defense corps already playing without Rasmus Ristolainen, who is working his way back from a severe bout with COVID-19. Krueger suggested Ristolainen could return "in a couple of weeks," though he stressed that the timeline is not definite.
McCabe and Ristolainen formed one of the NHL's most statistically consistent defense pairs to open the season despite routinely playing against opponents' top lines. To replace them will be a measure of the team's depth both on the back end and in the dressing room.
"Jake's a guy that, he's taken a lot of strides in the last couple of years as a leader and he's somebody I have a lot of respect for and all the guys have a lot of respect for in that room," said Kyle Okposo, an alternate captain along with McCabe.
"I don't know what the final prognosis is yet, but he's going to be a guy that's dearly missed on and off the ice. He does everything right. Blocks a lot of shots, he's there for guys, he's fought this year. I mean, he's just a high-character guy. He's gonna be missed for sure."
William Borgen has established himself as a promising candidate to step up in the meantime, though he was absent from practice on Sunday to nurse an upper-body injury. His status for the team's game against the New York Islanders on Monday will be determined in the morning, Krueger said.
Borgen paired effectively with Rasmus Dahlin against the Devils, with the former's physical, defensive-minded style complementing the latter's high-skill game. Dahlin eclipsed 25 minutes of ice time in three straight games before skating 18:24 on Sunday.
"He's had to step up and play big minutes," Krueger said of Dahlin. "He's had to step up and play against the top lines of the other teams since the injuries and COVID in a way that he never did in his career, and yet he's doing well with it."
Here's how the team practiced on defense without Borgen and McCabe on Sunday:
26 Rasmus Dahlin - 33 Colin Miller
44 Matt Irwin - 62 Brandon Montour
88 Brandon Davidson - 10 Henri Jokiharju
Left-shot options in Rochester include second-year pro Jacob Bryson and rookie Mattias Samuelsson. Montour, Miller, and Jokiharju have all played on their off side at various points in their careers.
"We just have to make the best of it and try to compete," Dahlin said.
Lines at Sunday's practice
Video: AFTER PRACTICE: Krueger
Jeff Skinner skated on a fifth forward line alongside Rasmus Asplund and Tage Thompson, suggesting he could be a healthy scratch on Monday. Casey Mittelstadt took Skinner's place on a line with Curtis Lazar and Riley Sheahan.
Here's how the forwards lined up in full:
68 Victor Olofsson - 9 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
4 Taylor Hall - 12 Eric Staal - 24 Dylan Cozens
13 Tobias Rieder - 20 Cody Eakin - 21 Kyle Okposo
37 Casey Mittelstadt - 27 Curtis Lazar - 15 Riley Sheahan
53 Jeff Skinner - 74 Rasmus Asplund - 72 Tage Thompson
Krueger did not confirm whether the lineup would stick for the game against the Islanders but said decisions will be based on what the coaching staff deems best for the team.
"I have a lot of respect for the noise certain decisions will make," Krueger said. "In the end, quite clearly, my role's not to be popular here but to be respected at the end of the day, whatever reckoning is on the table. It's the way we like to lead out of the coaching room here, striving for honesty within accountability and also hopefully getting players to their potential in the end is my job, is our job.
"We do strive for that. When we make hard decisions, they're not necessarily short-term, 'Will they make everybody happy?' But hopefully it pushes the right buttons in the individuals to have them fulfill the roles that we expect. We have expectations on each and every player in this group and … the respect for players, for their seniority, is there. But at the same time, accountability needs to be at the top of the fold for us as we develop here the Buffalo Sabres into that regularly competitive group."