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Mike Harrington: Game by game, Guhle is making progress

If you have no idea what in the world to watch when you dare to flip on the TV or walk into a Sabres game at KeyBank Center, there's an easy suggestion.

Keep an eye on Brendan Guhle. It's important he plays well in the final few weeks of this season. The news is pretty good so far. Each game is getting incrementally better.

Guhle has been the Sabres' biggest prospect on defense almost from the moment he was drafted in the second round in 2015. And if you've watched the horror show of the last few years, you know this team needs help on the back end.

Guhle has played 53 games in Rochester the last two years. He'll get a few more in this year during the Calder Cup playoffs. Come next September, it will be time for the 21-year-old to make this club for good.

"I want to show the staff and the organization that I can play in this league and play a lot of minutes," Guhle said Thursday prior to the Sabres' loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. "I want to put some trust in me for next year and for myself I want to improve my game the best I can."

Guhle's second callup of the season started against the Leafs during Buffalo's 5-3 win on March 5. He struggled to get used to the speed of the NHL game and was unsure of himself during certain shifts. The moment seemed a little large for him.

"He had a little bit of a rough start in a big game, in a big atmosphere," admitted coach Phil Housley. "But as the game wore on, I thought he got more comfortable. I think he’s getting more comfortable as he’s playing his game, which is being good defensively. When he attacks the game with speed, he adds to our offense. I’d like to see more of that."

Housley said he's liked the way Guhle's decision-making has evolved during this NHL stint, where he's played mostly with Amerks partner Casey Nelson. Coaching veteran Gord Dineen, one of Chris Taylor's assistants in Rochester, has worked with Guhle and Housley said the impact is noticeable. Housley wants to see Guhle keep utilizing his speed and become more willing to lead rushes, as well as jumping into them.

"I have to be smart about it and not reckless," Guhle said. "I haven't done anything real wrong with it so far. I'm just going to see when I have a chance and I appreciate that he said. The main thing that I find is who you're on the ice against. Are they tired, been in a long shift? Are they fresh? Are we tired? Sometimes you see an odd-man rush developing, I try to put all that aside and add to it."

Guhle's has one assist in seven games with the Sabres this season and his best game to date was Saturday's shootout affair against Vegas, when he set career highs in ice time (17:50) and shots on goal (four). One of his rushes came in overtime when he got in on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who had to make one save, and nearly had to face Guhle again on a rebound.

There was some confidence shown by Housley there, having Guhle out in the 3-on-3 play.

"That was exciting for sure," Guhle said. "I had fun in that game, and definitely at that moment. I enjoyed it a lot. I picked the puck up in the corner and I knew there was a guy on me so I faked I was going to reverse and I knew that could lose him."

Guhle hasn't scored a goal yet at the NHL level; he has eight with the Amerks this year. The Sabres aren't watching numbers much during this stretch. They're watching his ability to stay with the game and so far the returns are encouraging. He should be good and ready to help the Amerks come Calder Cup playoff time.

Housley said he's still hoping to see more out of Guhle right from the hop in games. Of course, the same could be said for plenty of players in Blue and Gold, many of whom are never ready to go at the opening faceoff.

"I think he tries to ease into games a bit," Housley said of Guhle. "I’d like to have him him start the way he is through the middle portion of the game. But I like his development, I like his progression."

Housley used Guhle for nearly seven minutes of the first period Thursday and while there's a lot of evaluation going on, you also sense the coach's confidence is quickly rising. This game was an even bigger pressure cooker than the one 10 days earlier as the building was swarmed by Leafs fans in their Blue and White jerseys more so than any time in recent years.

Guhle certainly didn't look out of place. He's not a star right now and maybe he never will be. Maybe his ceiling would be on the second pair, but he would certainly rate far better than many of the players the Sabres have trotted out on defense in recent times.

And maybe his development will mushroom. We're still talking about a 20-year-old. Who knows what he might be at 22, 23 or 24? That's been the billing for a while. Guhle knows those theories abound but he's trying not to pay attention to any of them.

"This has been good for me, a real learning experience," Guhle said. "I'm trying to keep improving every day I'm here. I know what I'm capable of and I'm going to try to be the best player that I can be. I don't really try to listen to the outside noise. I just try to focus on my game and I want to do it every game."

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