After a stellar Ontario Junior Hockey League regular season in 2012-13, the Buffalo Jr. Sabres fell short in the playoffs, losing to North York in six games in the conference semifinals. Following the postseason defeat, the Jr. Sabres lost two of their star players, forward Tyler Gjurich and goaltender Parker Gahagen, creating two big holes to fill in the lineup.
Despite the roster turnover, the Jr. Sabres are still positioned for an excellent season in 2013-14. With four wins in their first games this season, head coach and general manager Michael Peca is excited by the combination of talented players the Jr. Sabres have accumulated.
“When you’ve got great veteran leadership and young, eager guys that are respectful and willing to listen, it creates a pretty good environment,” Peca said.
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At the goaltender position, Gahagen was a force for the Jr. Sabres last season, going 29-10-4 with a 2.55 GAA and seven shutouts. Now Gahagen is playing college hockey at Army, and he is replaced in goal by Joseph Pianta and Brandon Mueller. Peca feels especially comfortable with the goaltending situation this season considering the loss of a player of Gahagen’s caliber.
“[Pianta’s] a class act. He comes to the rink every day prepared to have really good practices. It was important for us to find a guy that can carry the load like Parker [Gahagen] did for two years for us, and Joe’s that guy. He’s a gamer; he’s a goalie that you want because he makes big saves at big times in a hockey game. So we’re fortunate to have been able to get him,” Peca said.
Gjurich -- who is now in the training camp of the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack after attending Buffalo Sabres development camp in July -- led the Jr. Sabres in scoring last season with 53 goals and 97 points and was named OJHL MVP. Peca believes that it will require more of a team effort to replace Gjurich’s offensive output, looking to veteran forwards such as Nolan Sheeran, Max Mikowski and Tim Kielich, along with younger players like Michael Ederer, Nick Smith, Josh Gabriel and Nico Gonzalez.
One of the team’s leading scorers in the early part of the season was Daniel LaFontaine, son of former Buffalo Sabres center Pat LaFontaine. After picking up two goals and five assists in the team’s first four games, Lafontaine injured his knee had surgery on Tuesday that will keep him out of the lineup for three to four months. While Peca acknowledged the loss of LaFontaine, he was confident that his team will step up to the challenge.
“I think the one thing we have on our team this year, maybe as good as it’s been any year of this program, is that the depth is extremely strong. We’re four lines deep. It’ll be important for everyone in the lineup to fill the hole,” Peca said.
The Jr. Sabres also have a strong leadership core with captain Ryan Schmelzer and assistant captains Mikowski, Sheeran, and Nick DeSimone.
Already off to a strong start this season, the Jr. Sabres are well positioned to defend their Ontario Junior Hockey League West Division title.