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Baptiste enters season needing to make impression

Nick Baptiste is in Buffalo for his third development camp, a veteran among the group. That doesn’t mean he has nothing to prove.

“That’s why I’m here,” Baptiste said. “I’ve got to prove that I can play in the NHL and have the ability to do that. That’s what’s motivating me right now.”

Baptiste was considered one of the Sabres top forward prospects before Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart were drafted. When fans penciled in future lines, he and Justin Bailey were sure to make an appearance.

That hype was warranted based on his performance in juniors. He scored 45 goals and 89 points in 65 OHL games with the Sudbury Wolves in 2013-’14. A year later he was able to play on Connor McDavid’s wing when he was traded to the Erie Otters. He fit right in, scoring 26 goals and 53 points in 41 regular season games and 23 points in 16 playoff games with the Otters.

That scoring touch wasn’t always apparent last year, his first with the Rochester Americans. Despite finishing tied for second on the team in goals with 13, he wasn’t able to separate himself from most of the Americans other forwards. Phil Varone, Jerry D’Amigo, Daniel Catenacci and Tim Schaller were all tied with or a goal behind Baptiste, despite some playing 10 to 20 games fewer.

Inconsistency issues can be expected for any young player jumping up to the next level. Things that came easy in juniors like backchecking and battles in the corner get more strenuous when the competition changes from teenagers to men. He credits veterans like Matt Ellis and Patrick Kaleta for helping him improve by the end of the season.

“It’s a learning curve,” Baptiste said. “Guys are bigger, stronger, faster. Things are done at a faster pace. I adjusted well as the season went on. Our leaders talked about helping us with that.”

However, Baptiste risks being passed by in a competitive forward system. Bailey and Hudson Fasching have already gotten looks with the Sabres and impressed. Eichel and Reinhart are obvious stalwarts for the team in the next decade. Alex Nylander has lived up to expectations thus far in camp. That’s all before discussing the possibility of the team signing Jimmy Vesey.

Add in veterans like Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo and suddenly there are limited spots available. That could make 2016-17 a defining year for his future status as a full-time NHL player.

“It’s a massive year,” Baptiste said. “If I continue to improve, continue to do the things I need to, I think I can play there. It’s just a matter of time.”

* * *

The Sabres announced the 9th annual Buffalo Sabres Foundation Golf Tournament will be held Sept. 21 at the Wanakah Country Club in Hamburg.

Entry is $3,000 for a foursome and $5,000 for auction sponsors. Each group will be joined by a Sabres player, coach, alumnus or broadcast personality.

Registration will begin at 10 a.m. with a shotgun start at 11:30.

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