BUFFALO – The most experienced defense prospect participating in the Sabres’ summer development camp might also have the most to prove.
As a rookie in 2011-12, Brayden McNabb impressed from the get-go, earning his first NHL promotion in late November and playing 25 total games with the Sabres.
Less than two years later, the 22-year-old has almost become an afterthought.
When the NHL season started in January, McNabb, who struggled a bit with Rochester last season, wasn’t even summoned for the Sabres’ abbreviated training camp. Then, after regaining his freshman form, he suffered a season-ending knee injury in late March.
Had McNabb stayed healthy, he almost certainly would’ve been recalled as injuries ravaged the defense corps late in the season.
But since then, the Sabres have rebuilt their defense depth.
They reacquired old friend Henrik Tallinder from New Jersey on Sunday. They drafted two slick defenders – Rasmus Ristolainen eighth overall and Nikita Zadorov 16th – on June 30. Chad Ruhwedel also jumped right from the NCAA to the NHL in April.
These days, McNabb’s name is rarely mentioned.
“Obviously, it’s tough,” McNabb said Wednesday about his NHL absence. “From the year I played I kind of go in thinking you can earn a spot. But it’s a huge learning curve for me. It’s something I’m going to learn from and make sure I’m ready for this camp.”
This week’s camp, which concludes with the Blue and Gold scrimmage this afternoon inside the First Niagara Center, is huge for McNabb. A strong showing could set him up well for training camp. Even with eight NHL defensemen, an impressive September could force the Sabres to keep him.
McNabb, a veteran of 132 pro games, wants to showcase his talents and remind everyone he’s still around.
“For sure, that’s huge motivation,” McNabb said about finding his place on a crowded blue line. “I can’t do much about that besides go out there, prove myself and earn myself a spot.”
By the end of 2011-12, the smooth-skating McNabb looked like he had secured an NHL spot. But the Sabres started last season with eight defensemen, so McNabb stayed down. At one point he was a healthy scratch with the Americans, although he still earned an AHL All-Star appearance.
“I thought I had a little lull midseason, which didn’t help,” McNabb said.
In March, rookie Mark Pysyk, McNabb’s defense partner, bypassed him on the depth chart and was recalled. McNabb hurt his knee March 23 in Houston after missing a hit.
He said the knee’s “close” to normal and will be fine by training camp. He began skating again last month.
“It’s a tough injury, that’s for sure,” McNabb said. “It’s still getting better.”
Ruhwedel, last seen playing seven games in April, needed time to decompress after the season.
“It was just time to relax, that’s all it was,” said Ruhwedel, who made his NHL debut April 13, two days after UMass Lowell was eliminated from the Frozen Four. “It was just such a whirlwind. Obviously, it was a tough loss, tough end of the season. But it was nice to just finally take a deep breath and maybe sleep in a couple days and just kind of get your energy back.”
Ruhwedel couldn’t relax right away, though. The 23-year-old finished the semester at school first. Right now, he’s taking two online business courses. He’ll be nine credits short of his degree.
The Sabres lured Ruhwedel by offering the opportunity to play in the NHL immediately. He’s cognizant he could start next season in Rochester, however.
“I’m not expecting anything,” Ruhwedel said. “I expect a lot out of myself. I’m not expecting anything from above. It’s about me working hard and earning a spot. That’s pretty much what it comes down to.”
He added: “(Rochester’s) something I’m willing to accept. But I’m going to do everything in my power to play with the big boys.”