They lost the league’s player of the year who also happened to be the Ontario Junior Hockey League’s top scorer. They lost their top defensemen, and they even lost their all-world goaltender.
Enough of what the Buffalo Junior Sabres don’t have in the cupboard this season.
Western New York’s Junior A team still has its second-, third- and fourth-leading scorers in the fold – including East Amherst’s Ryan Schmelzer, who like the departed Tyler Gjurich averaged more than a point a game last season. They have players who not only know how to put the puck in the net but also lead (Nolan Sheeran, Pat Egan and Max Mikowski).
That’s a good thing because they will be among the players coach/general manager Michael Peca will lean on heavily during the early going of the season, which begins this afternoon at 3 at rival North York (Ont.). Buffalo’s home opener is at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Northtown Center in Amherst against Toronto/Lakeshore. The Junior Sabres then play Game 3 of their 55-game regular-season schedule at home Wednesday against Toronto.
While the Junior Sabres’ expectations remain the same (win games, attract scouts and graduate players to Division I and III college levels), it’ll still be a little difficult matching last year’s success in which the program set its Junior A record for regular-season wins (38), won its first OJHL division title and finished ranked in the top 10 among all (128) Canadian Junior Hockey League teams. Fifteen of the 23 players – including Daniel LaFontaine, the son of Hall of Famer and former Sabres captain Pat - on the roster are in their first year in the OJHL. All but five players are from the area.
“We might have some growing pains early on because of the turnover,” said Peca, who captured the league’s exeuctive and coach of the year honors last year. “I think everyone realizes the skill level we have in the locker room. The key is trust, how much they’re willing to open up, and once that happens it’ll be a pretty powerful thing.”
Schmelzer, the captain and Canisius College commit, had 24 goals and 67 points in 51 games last year. Egan followed with 28 goals and 52 points in 54 games.
They along with Sheeran (17 goals, 43 points) will be expected to pick up some of scoring void created by the loss of Gjurich (53 goals, 97 points), the 2012-13 OJHL Player of the Year who will attend training camp with the Hartford Wolf Pack in the American Hockey League later this month.
West Seneca’s Darren McCormick and St. Lawrence commit Michael Ederer of Lancaster are rookies who are expected to add speed, skill and good hands to the forward ranks.
The defense will be learning on the fly as Ben Casale of Lewiston is the lone returnee, but the blue line does have some nice young talent. Dennis Gilbert, who helped St. Joe’s win a state Catholic high school title and has verbally committed to Niagara, figures to help make up for some of the offensive load lost via the departure of Sean Federow (43 points), who earned a scholarship to attend American International. Like Gilbert, East Amherst’s Nick DeSimone is very skilled, big and mobile and has a chance to open some eyes.
The loss of goalie Parker Gahagen (Army) could be the biggest hole to fill, but the Junior Sabres hope they addressed that by acquiring Joe Pianta via trade from Toronto/Lakeshore. He brings two years of playing experience in the league.
“I think coming into this year we’re expecting more,” Sheeran said. “We’re a better team. We’re expecting to go farther than we did last year.”