Small group of Buffalo Sabres playmakers have mixed levels of success in junior

By Ryan Womeldorf
Photo: With 8 points in eight points (2G, 6A) in 12 games, Brendan Guhle is on pace to surpass last year's total of 32, despite missing the first seven games of the season due to NHL training camp. (Courtesy of Ben Nelms/Getty Images)

Photo: With 8 points in eight points (2G, 6A) in 12 games, Brendan Guhle is on pace to surpass last year’s total of 32, despite missing seven games to an upper body injury. (Courtesy of Ben Nelms/Getty Images)

 

 

Though the Buffalo Sabres have graduated several prospects to Rochester of the AHL and have several more debuting at the collegiate level, there are still a handful of prospects plying their trade in the Canadian Hockey League during 2015-16, with four of the six playing in the WHL.

QMJHL

Vaclav Karabacek, RW, Baie-Comeau Drakkar
Drafted: 2nd round (49th overall), 2014

The 2015-16 campaign has not been a kind one for Baie-Comeau. Though they have played the fewest games in the QMJHL at 16, they are far and away the worst team in the league at 3-13-0-0. Their six points is a whopping eight behind the next-to-last team, Acadie-Bathurst, and they can neither score or keep pucks out of their net.

Karabacek has had a merely okay season, his first full campaign with Baie-Comeau after being dealt by Gatineau last season. He has five goals and six points through 13 games, with a cringe-worthy minus-12 rating. His game has never been offense-heavy, with more of a focus on solid two-way play and a willingness to go into the dirty areas. Still, it’s a bit disappointing to not see more out of him early on.

OHL

Eric Cornel, C, Peterborough Petes
Drafted: 2nd round (44th overall), 2014

Peterborough has been merely average (.500 to be exact) through 15 games this season, but finds itself in the thick of a dogfight in the OHL’s East Division. There are just five points separating first place and fourth, where the Petes currently sit.

Cornel is off to a strong start with nine assists and a dozen points through those 15 games. Lauded for his playmaking ability over the past couple of seasons, Cornel has shown that he is strong as ever in that facet of the game; his .60 assists-per-game rate is currently on pace to be the best of his career.

Cornel has added size to his 6-foot-2 frame and has all the talent to make it to the NHL level, and has taken on a major leadership role as captain of the Petes in the meantime. If he continues to develop his playmaking while rounding out the rest of his overall game, it might not be too long before we see the big pivot making his impact felt for the blue and gold.

WHL

Giorgio Estephan, C, Lethbridge Hurricanes
Drafted: 6th round (152nd overall), 2015

Through the first month of the 2015-16 season, Lethbridge couldn’t be happier with their start. With a record of 10-5-0-0, the Hurricanes are fourth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference, just four points off the pace.

A big part of that early success can be attributed to Estephan, who finds himself in the top 20 in league scoring with 21 points through 15 games. He has shown strong playmaking ability early on, with 15 assists over that time for an assist-per-game pace.

Estephan has average size at 6-foot-0  and 190 pounds, and is known for his flashy offensive abilities. He’s a strong skater, and as evidenced by his hot start in the assist column, is very good at creating for others. In his third full season with Lethbridge, Estephan is beginning to show that perhaps the Sabres have found a diamond in the rough.

Brendan Guhle, D, Prince Albert Raiders
Drafted: 2nd round (51st overall), 2015

It was originally thought that the 18-year-old Guhle could potentially crack the Sabres roster out of training camp. Though he had a strong showing in his first effort, it just wasn’t in the cards for him to remain on the main roster, partially due to injury.

Guhle has since recovered from his upper-body injury, looking strong in his nine games with Prince Albert. His five assists and six points in those nine games are part of the reason the Raiders find themselves in a three-way tie for first place in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.

Playing a strong all-around game and showing that he can be a workhorse, Guhle should be an anchor for a very good Raiders team in 2015-16. It appears as though his offensive game is coming into form, but he’ll remain a defensive strongpoint. Guhle was already making noise as a prospect to be watched, but with his offensive output thus far, he’s making an even stronger case.

Brycen Martin, D, Saskatoon Blades
Drafted: 3rd round (74th overall), 2014

For Martin, the 2015-16 season is about finding stability. In 2014-15, Martin was all over the place. He began the year with the Swift Current Broncos, found himself traded to Saskatoon and even joined Rochester for a pair of games.

This year, Martin looks like he’s finding stability and is performing well. With 10 assists and 13 points through 16 games, Martin is third on the Blades in scoring and second on the team with a plus-five rating. The Blades are treading water in the standings at 7-6-3-0, but Martin has been a real bright spot early on.

At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Martin shows good size, but isn’t overly physical. He instead bases his game on smooth skating and good vision, with good playmaking ability from the point (as evidenced by his 10 assists through 16 games). Martin is well on his way to eclipsing the career-best 38 points he posted in 2014-15 and could be in the process of a major leap forward in his development.

Devante Stephens, D, Kelowna Rockets
Drafted: 5th round (122nd overall), 2015

Kelowna has become known for their defensemen in recent years and Stephens has all the makings of another quality defenseman in a long line of them. Late in the 2014-15 campaign, Stephens emerged as one of the team’s better defensemen, playing a sound defensive game and showing a penchant for getting his nose dirty.

Though his stats don’t necessarily jump off the page (just three assists in 15 games), Stephens has taken on a larger role for what has been a very good Kelowna team. The Rockets are second in the Western Conference, just a point off the pace.

Stephens should continue to see his role grow as the season goes and though he is very raw, he has all the potential to be a top-four defenseman going forward. Stephens still needs to find his offensive game, but with the coaching staff in Kelowna, he is in good hands.

Top Performing Non-Junior Prospects: October

At the AHL level, the Amerks are off to a middling 5-5-0 start, but there has been one bright and surprising spot in the form of Jean Dupuy. With six assists in 10 games, he’s also second on the team in plus/minus at plus-five. He sits just two points behind Phil Varone, who leads the team in goals and points, with five and eight respectively.

On the collegiate level, despite a rocky 2-3-0 start for the Minnesota Golden Gophers, winger Hudson Fasching has been off to a fantastic start. Fasching already has three goals and an assist through five games and looks like the talented power forward that the Sabres sought out in the trade with the Los Angeles Kings. Also looking strong has been Jason Kasdorf of RPI. Though RPI is just 3-4-0 overall, they are atop the ECAC at 2-0-0 thanks to Kasdorf and his .922 save percentage. He and Notre Dame’s Cal Petersen will spend the year battling to see who is the best collegiate goalie in the Sabres’ prospect ranks, with Kasdorf holding the early edge.

Internationally, the only bright spot thus far has been Victor Olofsson of MODO hockey in Sweden. Olofsson showed promise in his first full SHL campaign in 2014-15 and looks to be building off of that performance. He already has seven assists and 10 points in 15 games after posting eight assists and 18 points in 39 games last season. He has shown good offensive instincts so far, but being able to do it against men much bigger and more experienced than him has been a big plus in 2015-16.

Prospect of the Month: Giorgio Estephan

Giorgio Estephan - Buffalo SabresOctober wasn’t the strongest month for most of the Sabres prospects, though to be fair, the best of the bunch have already graduated to the big leagues. Still, there was one clear standout in October, and that was Giorgio Estephan from Lethbridge of the WHL.

Sparking a strong start for the Hurricanes, seeing them just four points off the pace in the WHL’s Eastern Conference, Estephan has made his presence known through strong playmaking and quality overall play. He is averaging an assist per game through the team’s first 15 contests and finds himself in the top 20 in league scoring with 21 points overall. Estephan isn’t among the big name prospects in the Sabres’ pool, but a very strong start from him will likely garner a longer look from everyone.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @kindofawriter