By Bill Hoppe
The thinking went like this: Brayden McNabb, the defenseman whose sturdy play has defied his rookie status, would fill in briefly, and then go back to Rochester when the blue line had six healthy regulars again.
Well, when defenseman Mike Weber returned from a broken rib Tuesday in the Sabres’ 3-2 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators, McNabb played his eighth straight game.
It was believed Marc-Andre Gragnani, who committed several glaring gaffes last week, might sit for the third time this season. Instead, the slumping rookie played sparingly as the seventh defenseman and forward Matt Ellis was scratched.
Gragnani, a winger when he first cracked the NHL briefly four years ago, even took some shifts up front late.
Perhaps the Sabres, pressed right against the $64.3 million salary cap, don’t have to ditch a defenseman until Tyler Myers, who’s skating again after breaking his wrist Nov. 19, can play. That could be at least a few weeks, though.
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said cap concerns won’t force McNabb down to the minors right now.
“He’s earned a spot right now the way he’s played,” Ruff said Tuesday morning inside the First Niagara Center. “We look at it we need to win games. I think when we get even more numbers back, maybe things change. There’s a lot of factors you have to evaluate on, and some of it is dictated on other stuff.”
The 20-year-old McNabb, who has zero points and is a minus-2, has showcased a strong physical edge and some heads-up play.
He played 16:59 on Tuesday, mostly beside Weber, a healthy scratch 15 times this season. Weber skated 16:31 in just his fourth game this season.
When Weber was hurt in his last appearance Nov. 16, no one noticed.
“It was just a weird one, just counter-hit a guy, turned and there was another guy there,” said Weber, who missed 11 games. “We kind of just collided and I felt the pop. Just one of those fluke plays.”
Weber, who turns 24 years old Friday, has been practicing full-bore for weeks.
“Other than the first couple days,” Weber said, “I had no pain, was doing really good, doing full workouts and skates, things like that.”
Weber called that “probably the most frustrating part.”
“I felt fine, I felt like I could battle, felt like I could hit,” he said. “But it was in a sensitive area you really can’t mess with too much.”
Weber added: “I was kind of stuck. It didn’t matter how hard I worked or what I did. I can’t make bone grow.”
Last season, the Pittsburgh native sat 20 of the first 22 games before securing a regular spot and playing 56 more times.
“Hopefully, it’s 53 straight here,” Weber said about the current campaign.
If Weber keeps playing, Gragnani, who actually compiled a plus-5 rating in his last four games and is a plus-11 overall, could eventually be scratched. The 24-year-old’s enduring possibly his worst run since he joined the Sabres for good in March.
He skated only 9:46 on Tuesday. He had been averaging 18:17 a night.
A giveaway up the middle of the ice to Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux in over Wednesday, which created the game-winning breakaway goal, has magnified his struggles.
“We need more,” Ruff said Saturday morning. “We need better focus, better intensity.”
Notes: Sabres center Paul Gaustad (shoulder) returned from a three-game absence. Winger Patrick Kaleta (groin) missed his fifth straight game. … Senators winger Milan Michalek left in the second period (upper body) after colliding with teammate Erik Karlsson. … Sabres goalie Ryan Miller’s 41 saves were the most since he made 48 in a 3-2 win over Toronto on Jan. 8, 2010. … The Sabres were 8-1 in their last nine games against the Senators.