Justin Bailey earned a spot on the Sabres’ top line last month. He knows there’s only one way to get back there.
After skating with Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo for 10 games, Bailey has shuffled around the lineup. He started Tuesday’s game against Philadelphia alongside center Evan Rodrigues and right wing Matt Moulson.
“It’s a little different when you’re not playing as many minutes, but it’s something you have to earn as a young player,” Bailey said in KeyBank Center. “I earned my way to get on that top line, and that’s just what coach is going with. I just have to earn my way back, continue to play the right way and do the things that I know make the coaches happy.”
The rookie does a few things that make Dan Bylsma smile. Bailey has been more aggressive offensively while trying to make plays. He’s using his speed to challenge defensemen.
He still has to work on testing goaltenders (he had one shot or none in eight of the previous nine games) and playing more physical.
“We want to, and Justin realizes it, play aggressive and gritty and physical and be a tight-gap team,” Bylsma said. “Justin has done that with good angles and being a hard guy to play against.”
As expected, the 21-year-old is feeling more comfortable with each game. It doesn’t matter if he’s playing 17:14 against Colorado, which he did last month, or 7:11 against Tampa Bay, which he did last week.
He felt his best next to O’Reilly and Okposo.
“When I came up here I had a lot of confidence playing with those two guys, and I think it showed in my game,” Bailey said. “I used my speed to really challenge D coming out of the zone, getting in on the forecheck and getting those guys the puck.
“I think I’ve been doing that more consistently. I think that’s why they’ve kept me up a little bit longer this time.”
Bailey has shuffled between Buffalo and Rochester, skating in 26 games with the Sabres and 40 with the Amerks. He’s been with the big club since Feb. 4. He may stay until the end of the season because of limited recalls after the trade deadline and injuries to Okposo and William Carrier.
No matter how long he’s in Buffalo, Bailey wants to use his time wisely. That means playing well enough to get back to the top line.
“Those are the top guys for a reason,” Bailey said. “Everyone up here plays the right way. Everyone is in the right spot, does the right thing for the most part. Those guys do it every single shift, every single game. They just made it easy for me to play simple, play with speed and make plays.”
O’Reilly is shooting more than he has since early November. Not coincidentally, he’s scoring more.
O’Reilly entered Tuesday with goals in three straight, his best run of the season. He took 13 shots in the games, his most active three-game stretch since he fired 15 pucks Nov. 3-7.
“Whether it’s power play or five-on-five, he’s had a good amount of zone time and puck-possession time,” Bylsma said. “But it’s when he’s shot the puck that he’s been a factor in the goal-scoring column, and that’s the same on the power play. The power-play goals have been one-timers coming over to his side there, and he’s utilized that.
“We are imploring those flanker guys – Jack Eichel on one side, Ryan on the other – to shoot the puck as much as possible.”
In addition to shooting more, O’Reilly is playing more. He set a season high with 25:32 Sunday in Pittsburgh. He entered Tuesday’s schedule leading NHL forwards at 21:43 per game.
“I'm never going to say no to going on the ice," O'Reilly said. "If it was up to me, I'd play the full 60.”
The NHL general managers’ meetings will wrap up Wednesday in Florida with discussion of the bye week. Sabres GM Tim Murray will be pushing for changes.
After seeing his team return from its break and fly out to Colorado for back-to-backs with the Avalanche and Arizona, Murray will request teams either stay in their time zone or face another team coming off a bye.
“It was a bad experience for me,” Murray told Yahoo Sports in Boca Raton, Fla. “Some guys, their teams came out of it and won. They had no issue with it. I did.”