Strangely enough for a team that hasn’t played a playoff series since 2011 or won one since 2007, there’s not going to be many spots for a young player to crack the Buffalo Sabres’ lineup come September. You know that names like Justin Bailey and Hudson Fasching will be pushing at forward and we’ll await training camp to see more of Casey Nelson on defense.
Maybe first-round pick Alexander Nylander, who showed off his slick skating for the first time in Buffalo Wednesday in HarborCenter, wows folks in training camp and takes a detour from his ticket to Rochester or Sweden. But that’s not too likely unless Nylander knocks socks off this week and out of drawers again in training camp.
The one player to watch in this view is defenseman Brendan Guhle. He turned heads last September and seemed on the cusp of breaking camp with the big club until getting crushed by a Dion Phaneuf hit late in the preseason. A year after his first development camp as a second-round pick in 2015, Guhle is back thinking he has a real chance.
“Absolutely I think it’s a possibility,” Guhle said Wednesday after his first development camp practice. “If it was a possibility last year, I don’t think it’s going to be any different this year. I’m taking it one ice time at a time, one workout at a time. Do whatever I can to better myself and give myself the best chance to make the team.”
Guhle, who doesn’t turn 19 until July 29, had 10 goals and 18 assists last year in 63 games for Prince Albert of the Western Hockey League. He was a shy, wide-eyed 17-year-old last year when the summer camp was held in First Niagara Center and became a real circus with the debut of Jack Eichel and the return of Sam Reinhart.
There’s no Eichel or Reinhart this year so things are a little calmer for Guhle, who hit town from his home in the Edmonton suburb of Sherwood Park that also produced ex-Buffalo defenseman Mark Pysyk. The move to HarborCenter gives the camp more of a gentler feel, but Guhle understands why there’s probably a lot of nervous faces hanging around downtown this week.
“It’s definitely a lot different for me,” he said. “I know a lot of the players now. Last year I didn’t know too many people except guys from the WHL and from Edmonton. So I’ve been mingling with a lot of the guys and feeling pretty comfortable off the ice so it’s definitely a different experience.”
Guhle is 6-foot-1 and 186 pounds. He’s a smooth skater. We saw last year how he had great vision on the ice, how he was unusually poised in the defensive zone for his age. Pysyk is gone now and there’s still a lot of uncertainty around Cody Franson, whose season ended in February with a neck problem.
As it stands right now, the defense to open the season will include Rasmus Ristolainen, Dmitry Kulikov, Zach Bogosian, Jake McCabe and Josh Gorges.
You would imagine the Sabres would be planning another journeyman back there, either newly acquired Justin Falk or someone still not on the roster, than thrust a kid right into the lineup.
But the best players should be playing in Buffalo right now, age aside. The Sabres are saying one more win a month last year would have put them in the playoffs. However dubious a notion that is when you consider they were on a 68-point pace in January, they should be going for victories now. If that means Guhle makes the team instead of staying in junior, he makes the team.
Guhle said he took a lot from his NHL experience last fall back to junior.
“One of the biggest things was communication,” he said. “Up here, they talk a lot more. In juniors, not a lot of people are open to talking like that. It’s the No. 1 thing: Communication on the ice, letting people know where we are.”
One other key aspect to Guhle’s season was that he finished it in Rochester, collecting one goal and three assists in six games for the Amerks after his junior season ended.
“That was a great time. I liked a lot of the guys there,” he said. “It was fun. We didn’t win as many games but it was good for me to just get the feel of the pro game again and go into the summer and finish off on a good note.”
One of Guhle’s junior teammates last season was 6-foot-3 Czech blueliner Vojtech Budik, who was one of the Sabres’ fifth-round picks this year. Guhle said he was impressed with Budik’s dependability, his physical play and shot-blocking. But the big guy is treading lightly in this camp. He’s a newbie whose eyes are plenty wide. Just like Guhle was last year.
“I’m trying to talk to him a little bit, ask him how it’s going,” Guhle said. “But he’s got his Czech buddies to talk to too. I can’t understand what they’re saying.”