Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
When GM Tim Murray was hired by the Buffalo Sabres one of the first things he started working on was shoring up the forward ranks. In the Ryan Miller trade with St. Louis he acquired two "heavies" in Chris Stewart and prospect William Carrier, but it wasn't until his trade with the Los Angeles Kings did he start shifting some of the defensive depth he had on hand for more forwards.
That began two weeks later when Murray traded defenseman Brayden McNabb plus other pieces to Los Angeles for two more heavies in forward prospects Nic Deslauriers and Hudson Fasching. Although McNabb was generally rated as fifth-best defensive prospect in the system at the time, he's proven that he can not only stick at the NHL-level, but also handle some heavy minutes in the top-four with the proper d-partner. It was a minor blow to the defense corps but yet was still significant as McNabb was a lefty. That move grew in importance when coupled with a major move by Murray 11 months later. Murray jumped at the opportunity to land forward Evander Kane but it took a number of quality pieces including the Sabres top defenseman, former Calder Trophy winner, Tyler Myers.
Myers was at the top of the food chain at the time and with his exit, the Sabres had holes to fill on defense up and down the blueline. Defenseman Zach Bogosian also came over in the trade with Winnipeg but was second on the righty depth-chart to Rasmus Ristolainen and although he could have played the left side last season, head coach Dan Bylsma had him on the second paring.
Murray wasn't finished bolstering his forward ranks as he traded for Ryan O'Reilly at the 2015 NHL Draft. But that also came at a hefty price that included a top-level defensive prospect--Nikita Zadorov.
Although Zadorov had his problems, he had the size, skating ability and a mean-streak, and untapped offensive potential as his saving graces. As a lefty he was viewed as the potential tower opposite Ristolainen giving the Sabres a big tandem for years to come.
All-in-all Murray traded away his top defenseman, top left-handed defenseman and a top-four defenseman to bolster the forward ranks. And as those players went out, new players were needed to replace them. Buffalo's two best d-prospects--Mark Pysyk and Jake McCabe--ended up with the big club leaving a huge void in Rochester. Lack of defensive depth and talent was one of the reasons the Amerks had a poor season.
It will take at least another year or two for Murray to shore up his defensive depth and maybe even a bit longer if his best prospect makes the jump to the NHL, which is very possible, and it's where we start our top-three Buffalo prospects on defense.
If one needs an indication as to just how much Murray and Co. thought of Guhle after drafting him with the 51st-overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, the Sabres signed the 6'2" 186 lb. Guhle to his entry-level deal a month later. We Sabres fans soon found out why during training camp and into the preseason.
Guhle's athleticism and fluid skating were on display last off season and into preseason before being leveled by Dion Phaneuf on a clean hit during a preseason game against Toronto. "Welcome to the NHL, kid." It took him a little while to recover but while he was doing so the Sabres kept him with the big club and he was exposed to the daily workings of the NHL.
After being sent back down Guhle had a solid year with his junior club hitting the scoresheet for 28 points (10+18) in 63 games for the Prince Albert Raiders of the tough Western Hockey League. When his season ended he went to Rochester on a tryout for six games. Guhle never looked out of place playing for the Amerks and in six games he registered his first professional goal while adding three assists and an even rating.
Although he won't be a "tower" like Zadorov, Guhle is a lefty and looks to be a top-four NHL d-man with the possibility of being an all-situations, top-pairing defenseman. Perhaps we may be jumping the gun a bit, and maybe necessity is clouding our vision as the Sabres haven't found the answer to who will be playing alongside Ristolainen yet, but with the way he plays, the physical tools he has to work with and athleticism he possess coupled with his skating ability and hockey sense, in the very least sits atop the Sabres prospect pool and isn't long for the NHL.
The St. Cloud State University defenseman is another athletic defenseman picked by Murray in the 2015 NHL Draft (92nd-overall.)
At 6'2" 190 lbs. Borgen has good size and at only 19 years old he still has plenty of room to add to his frame. I like the way Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com/sabres.com opened up with his analysis of Borgen in his April, 2016 prospect rankings. "Every year there is one Sabres prospect that sticks out as an early developmental overachiever," wrote Baker of his fourth-ranked Sabres prospect. "Say hello to Will Borgen"
It's what Team USA did at the World Junior Championships this year as they placed the freshman college player in a top-four role on defense. His performance was well regarded throughout hockey leading The Hockey News' Ryan Kennedy to lead off his Prospects Need To Know segment with Borgen on January 12th. "Last year at this time, the smooth-skating defenseman was playing Minnesota high school hockey," wrote Kennedy of Borgen. "Now he’s returning to the NCAA’s St. Cloud State Huskies with a bronze medal.
"Borgen has a nice physical edge to his game," continued Kennedy, "and though he intended to play in the USHL this season, an 18-game, post-high school season stint with the Omaha Lancers last year gave him the confidence to jump to college early."
This year Borgen will be entering his sophomore season with the Huskies as they look to go beyond the first round loss they suffered in this year's 2016 NCAA Men's Tournament.
Baker emphasized Borgen's poise on the back end as well as his mobility and puck moving abilities but also pointed out what Kennedy mentioned. "He maintains tight gaps and goes down to one knee and uses his long stick to clog shooting and passing lanes," wrote Baker of Borgen, "and when he needs to show his teeth he's not at all shy about using his body for big hits and pushing back after the whistle."
There's a huge gap between Borgen at No. 4 on Baker's list and Brycen Martin who he ranks as the 16th-best overall Sabres prospect.
The Sabres had must have liked his progress so far as they just signed him to his entry-level deal. Had they not done so by yesterday, Martin would have been eligible to re-enter the NHL draft this season.
At 6'2" 200 lbs Martin has the pro body size and he showed in junior that he can excel with an increased work-load. Baker likes Martin's two-way game while also labeling him as an "offensive weapon" while having other qualities that will help him get adapt in an increasingly faster-paced, higher pressure NHL. Wrote Baker, "Martin has done a nice job adding to the attack over the past two seasons with his ability to skate the puck out of trouble and distribute it with poise and confidence."
He'll be part of the cavalry that will be headed to Rochester to shore up that club.
Others: Casey Nelson (Rochester,) Anthony Florentino (Senior, Providence,) Brady Austin (Rochester,) Devante Stephens (Kelowna, WHL,) Ivan Chukarov (sophomore, UMASS-Amherst)
Overview: Without the impressive pick of Guhle as well as the Borgen pick, the Buffalo prospect pool in defense would be dangerously thin if not veritably non-existent. As mentioned earlier Mark Pysyk moved up to the big club last season and Jake McCabe ended up forcing his way up. Because of those two losses, the Amerks had a tough go of it on the blueline and ended up near the bottom of the league. Guhle definitely won't be in Rochester because of the NHL/CHL agreement on players and it's highly unlikely that Borgen will bolt college to turn pro.
Chad Ruhwedel and recently acquired Michael Sdao are the elder statesmen of the prospect pool and are both Group 6 UFA's who may or may not return. With only Martin as a possible homegrown addition on defense, Murray has his work cut out for him. Luckily he added Casey Nelson last season who could help anchor the defense corps, and that will help, but there's still plenty to do.
This group is in tatters and although you can say that the loss of talent was the biggest contributor, having a player like McCabe make the unexpected jump and having the possibility of Guhle also making the jump adds to it's fragility due to pure talent bypassing their respective developmental leagues. The Sabres will hit the NHL draft with 12 picks overall and no matter how many they eventually end up with, one would think that a majority of them will be on the blueline, just like last year.