In a tournament featuring babyfaced 18-year-olds, established prospects such as Justin Bailey and Nicholas Baptiste are supposed to stand out. Baptiste did his part during the Sabres’ first game. Bailey is ready for his time in the spotlight.
Buffalo will close its prospects challenge Monday night against the Boston Bruins, and Bailey can’t wait to lace up the skates. He watched from the stands as the Sabres lost, 6-3, to New Jersey in the opener. He’ll be one of the go-to guys for the finale in HarborCenter (7 p.m., Radio ESPN-AM 1520).
“Now in my fourth year, I just want to show I can be dominant out there,” Bailey said Sunday after practice. “Whether I score, whether I don’t score, I want to show that I’m forming the right habits and I’m doing the things that will get me to the NHL.”
Scoring would be a bonus, of course, as Baptiste can attest. His hat trick accounted for all of Buffalo’s offense against the Devils, and it certainly caught the attention of the decision-makers in the organization.
“Anytime you’re in front of Sabres brass and they’re watching, it’s important to show what you can do,” Baptiste said. “I thought that I did that.”
It will take more than offense for Bailey and Baptiste to make the leap from Rochester to Buffalo, and the wingers know it. They learned hard lessons last year during slow starts to their professional careers, but both caught on and saw where they needed to improve. They showed it during the weekend with all-around games and detailed practices.
“As an organization, they know the player I am,” said Bailey, a second-round pick in 2013. “They know I can score. They know what I can do with my speed. It’s just the little things that are keeping me out of the NHL, so I have to really, really be strict with those little things and play with a lot of confidence.”
The little things, of course, are defensive awareness and hustle without the puck. Baptiste impressed in those categories Saturday just as much as he did with his goal-scoring ability.
“One time he came back like somebody shot him out of a cannon,” Amerks coach Dan Lambert said. “That’s the type of efforts we need from him and a lot more guys.”
Baptiste’s production while playing a two-way game was further proof of the style he needs to embrace. After scoring 98 goals during his last three years of junior hockey, he put up eight in the opening 37 games with the Amerks.
“It’s not an easy league in the AHL,” Baptiste said. “The biggest thing for me last year was learning from older guys and how to be a pro off the ice and in the gym, and defensively how important that is because it just translates to your offense. There’s so many guys that play two-way games and score 30 goals in the NHL. That’s what teams look for is guys who can play both ways.”
In Bailey’s effort to become an all-around player, the Williamsville native watched replays of his eight games with the Sabres.
“You see the mistakes you made,” he said. “You see a couple things where you're a little bit too jittery, a couple times where you’re too quick and you had time to make a play, and I think that’s something that comes over time when you get used to the league.”
Bailey certainly got used to things at the American Hockey League level. He finished as the Amerks’ leading scorer with 20 goals and 45 points.
“Last year was a special year for me,” the 21-year-old said. “It was a great feeling to get called up, obviously, with the hometown and everything like that, but I think I earned it and I deserved it.”
He’s ready to show Monday and during Sabres training camp that he deserves to be in the NHL again.
“I like to take things in steps,” Bailey said. “Development camp is something I’ve gone to for four years now, so you get to dev camp and show them, ‘Hey, here’s where I am in July.’ Then you come back and play in these, and I’ve been fortunate enough to play pretty well in these.
“It’s crazy. I blinked my eyes and it’s my fourth year coming here. I look back every single year, and it gets a little easier in the sense they know who I am. At the same time, it’s never easy.”