PHILADELPHIA – Justin Bailey’s plan is to soak in every moment of his NHL debut. With that in mind, he was one of the first players to take the ice for Thursday’s morning skate.
“You want to take this all in,” said the Sabres forward and Williamsville native, who will play his first NHL game against Philadelphia. “You’re only able to do this one time, making your first callup and your first opportunity to play with the team, so you want to enjoy and get as much time out there as you can.
“You try not to be too nervous obviously, but it’s something I’ve been looking forward to my whole life. I think it’s good nerves, not bad nerves.”
Bailey gave off a relaxed vibe on the biggest day of his life. The 20-year-old feels he’s earned a spot in the Sabres’ dressing room and is comfortable there after working out with most of the players during the summer. He’s grown rapidly during his first year as a pro.
“The first probably 10 games were tough,” Bailey said. “The speed wasn’t really an issue for me. It was more decision making and things like that. After that I was getting opportunities and they just weren’t finding the back of the net. Over probably the last 15 games, they’ve been going in for me. I’ve just got to continue to play my game and hopefully the chances and opportunities will continue up here.
“From the time I got drafted till now, it’s been special that it’s my hometown. It gives me a little bit more added incentive.”
Bailey, who was issued No. 56 rather his usual 95, will have his mother and grandmother in attendance in Wells Fargo Center. His mother, who raised Bailey as a single mom, was the first person he called.
“It was special,” he said. “It was emotional for her more than me. She got teared up. I called her and she got the tears out, the emotions out, and the first thing she said was, ‘I’m getting a flight to Philadelphia.’
“When I played in Kitchener, my mom and grandparents were at every single home game. When I went to the Soo, it was a 10-hour drive and they made that trip two times. My support system’s great. I’m very thankful for that. I know she wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
The one unknown is where the right winger will slot in the lineup. Coach Dan Bylsma was vague.
“We’re going to look to get him in different spots in the lineup with different guys,” said Bylsma, who watched two Amerks games during the NHL All-Star break. “Justin is using his speed and size to be effective up and down the wing, starting to learn to get on pucks, hold pucks and be a presence in the offensive zone with that big physical size. The two games I watched him, his speed up the wing and driving the net was evident.”
While Bailey would have loved to make his NHL debut in Buffalo (he might get the chance to play there Friday when the Sabres host Montreal) he’s fine with Philly.
“I grew up watching the rivalry between the Sabs and the Flyers,” he said. “I remember when Danny Briere went to the Flyers, it was one of the worst days for me as a fan. You grew up, you watched the Flyers and it’s crazy. It seems just like yesterday there was the Brian Campbell hit in the playoffs. Just little things like that I think of when I think of the Flyers. It’s special for sure.”
In other news from the morning skate:
*Robin Lehner will start in goal for Buffalo.
*Johan Larsson didn’t make the trip.
“We kept him back in Buffalo to give him the best opportunity to recover and be a possibility for tomorrow,” Bylsma said.
*Zemgus Girgensons’ trip to injured reserve is retroactive to last weekend, so he can return to the lineup Sunday against Colorado if his health permits.
*Former world heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield took notice of Evander Kane’s three-fight night last game. Holyfield tweeted to Kane, who is named after the boxer: “Nice overhand right.”
“"It was a nice compliment from a guy who knows a thing or two about boxing,” Kane said.