Giorgio Estephan didn’t produce like a sixth-round pick last year. He was as dominant as any Sabres prospect, scoring 30 goals and 74 points with the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the WHL, a 23-point increase from the year prior.
No Sabres prospect scored more goals than Estephan in juniors last year, including Alex Nylander, even though Estephan missed nearly a month with an ankle injury.
For him, it was all about finding linemates to connect with.
“We all just kind of knew where each other was at the right time,” Estephan said. “You didn’t have to even call for the puck. You just knew where the other guy was and put it on his tape.”
Estephan spent the majority of the season playing with Brayden Burke and Tyler Wong, a combination that paid off immensely for head coach Brent Kisio. Estephan’s point total was good for 22nd in the WHL, while Bruke and Wong ranked third and 10th, respectively.
“If you have three guys who work hard and make plays, it’s a fierce combo,” Kisio said. “Brayden Burke, he’s a pass-first guy and he knows how good Giorgio is, so he tries to get him the puck all over the ice. Tyler Wong on the right side as well, he just works so hard. ... Giorgio is kind of the trigger guy on that line. He scores a lot of goals because of it.”
Their success was a major factor in an outstanding season for the Hurricanes, as Lethbridge went 46-24-2 and made the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09. Lethbridge finished second in the Eastern Conference and first in the Central Division. It was a drastic change from Estephan’s first two full seasons, when the Hurricanes lost 67 more games than they won.
“I think their organization took a nice turn, a positive turn,” Rochester Americans head coach Dan Lambert said. “He had been in a losing environment for a few seasons, and I think this past year the maturity of not only him but his whole team certainly showed.”
Estephan has developed into a smart two-way player, one who combines his knowledge and skills to dissect the game. It makes you wonder what he could have done if the injury didn’t get in the way.
“He got better and better,” Kisio said. “There was a stretch there where I saw him play the best hockey he ever played. ... His numbers were real good. They would have been amazing if he didn’t hurt his ankle.”
Yet, his scoring touch was never something people doubted. His big downfall has always been his skating, something he’s been working on in juniors and the offseason. If he really wants to make the jump to the NHL, he knows he’s going to need to clean up his form.
Kisio said Estephan is a hard worker in the gym and would stay on the ice half an hour after practice to work on his skating throughout the season. Estephan is spending the summer in Buffalo to further work on his skating regiment, featuring power-driven workouts.
“He’s going to get it right,” Kisio said. “One thing I don’t do is doubt him. He’s determined.”
Estephan has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He wants to prove to the world that he can rise higher than his draft selection, but at the end of the day, all that matters is that a team owns his rights. NHL players can come from anywhere in the draft. If you impress the brass at Development Camp, you have a chance to make the team.
“I don’t think it matters as much as people pretend it does,” Estephan said. “Any time you come here they’re all just watching you. They don’t care where you got drafted.”
“He’s going to play,” Kisio said. “He’s going to be a really great player for the Sabres.”