Let’s start on defense, where the Sabres currently have three active players in the Western Hockey League.
Devante Stephens: Stephens was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres last off-season with their 5th round pick (122nd overall). At 19 years of age, he stands at 6’1, and weighs in around 180 lbs.
Stephens currently plays for the defending WHL champion Kelowna Rockets. Kelowna is widely regarded as a Defenseman factory, producing iconic NHL players like Shea Weber, former Sabre Tyler Myers and current Sabre Josh Gorges.
Stephens has played every game for the Rockets this season while posting 11 points and a plus-12 rating. This Canadian born blue-liner is widely regarded as a steady two-way Defenseman, and is also know for his physicality. The adjective surrounding this young man during last year’s draft was “raw”.
Despite being rough around the edges, his incredible athleticism and undeniable potential left many pundits considering him the steal of the draft. Dan Bylsma was particularly excited about the selection with his well documented fist pump and exclamation at the Sabres draft table after the selection was announced. Stephens projects to be a mid to third pairing Defenseman at the NHL level, but will require some time to develop his game in Kelowna.
Brycen Martin: Brycen Martin has played on three different teams in the WHL in the past four seasons. Drafted by the Sabres in the third round in 2014, Martin was recently traded from the Saskatoon Blades to the Everett Silvertips.
Martin is best known for his smooth skating and puck carrying ability. While he has had stretches of phenomenal offensive production in juniors (50 points in 55 games to from 2014-2015), the 19-year-old defender has struggled to produce points as of late with only 13 points in his past 41 games for Everett.
This dip in production can be partially attributed to reduced ice time since being traded to Everett, a team that boasts a very deep blue line that includes Montreal Canadiens prospect Noah Juulsen (drafted 26th overall in 2015).
While a member of Saskatoon, Martin was leaned on heavily to quarterback the power-play an serve as a first pairing Defenseman. The Sabres have yet to sign Martin to his entry-level contract.
If the team does not do so prior to the 2016 draft, it has been speculated that Martin would re-enter the draft as he would be eligible to do so. Martin projects as a middle pairing, puck moving defenseman.
Brendan Guhle: Brendan Guhle is quite possibly the most intriguing defensive prospect in the Sabres system. As a current member of the Prince Albert Raiders, Guhle was selected in the second round with the Sabres 51st overall pick in 2015.
Guhle stands at 6’2″ and weighs in around 190 lbs and is known for his physical style of play and impressive hockey sense in his own end. Guhle impressed the Sabres brass at the prospect camp this past off-season, so much so that the team signed Guhle to his entry level deal despite his return to the WHL for the 2015-16 season.
The 18-year-old has been a key player on the Raiders this year, in a season where they have seen great improvement in the standings (5th in the eastern conference this season vs. 10th place the season prior), with much of their turnaround attributed to improved talent on the blue line.
Guhle has 28 points in 63 games played this season, which is a slight decline from last year where he averaged half a point per game (36 points in 72 games). Some speculate that he could push to make the Sabres roster as soon as next season, but with players like Chad Ruhwedel and Casey Nelson pushing for the same roster spot, Guhle may be best served spending one more season in the WHL until he is AHL eligible in 2017. He projects as a top four defenseman at the NHL level.
The Sabres have just one Forward prospect playing in the WHL this season, but he is one of the most intriguing players in their system. That player is Center, Giorgio Estephan.
Giorgio Estephan: “Explosive” is the best word to describe this 19-year-old offensive powerhouse.
Selected in the sixth round (152nd overall), Estephan has had a fantastic season playing for the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Estephan has posted 74 points in 59 games played for Lethbridge which is a huge jump from his 51 points in 64 games in 2014-15. His smooth skating and offensive prowess is even more impressive given his size.
The young man from Edmonton stands at 6’0″ tall and boasts a large frame, weighing in at 200 lbs. The one knock on Giorgio is his play in the defensive end of the ice, however many scouts note that he has put a great deal of focus on this facet of his game and continues to improve.
When watching him play, one cannot help but notice the work he puts into every shift. His work ethic and leadership makes him an intriguing member of the Sabres prospect pool moving forward. Estephan has not yet signed his entry-level contract, however it is expected that the Sabres will be compelled to do so given the vast improvements he has made this season.
Giorgio is a game-breaker style of player who is a threat to score every time he is on the ice. He projects as a middle six forward at the NHL level.
Overall the Sabres have an impressive prospect presence in the WHL, especially on defense. It will be interesting to see how these young men continue to develop as they push for NHL roster spots in the next few years.